Coffee Shops Are Killing Us!

Yesterday I received an e mail from Costa Coffee asking me to complete a short questionnaire on a recent visit to our local coffee shop. The survey asked about customer experience, the quality of the coffee and the cleanliness of the store, but surprisingly nothing about the food offerings. Muffins, pastries and sandwiches are now big sellers in our coffee shops and it is uncommon to see customers in coffee bars without a food accompaniment to their favourite drink. Typically, our family has developed a habit of frequenting Costa every Saturday morning for breakfast and decisions about what type of cake or flavour of muffin to have with our regular hot drinks, is the major discussion point before ordering. But it is not just in the  Midlands where people feel unable to resist the allure of breakfasts in the café or on the move. Suddenly, nationwide, our morning treat is becoming something rather more serious.

Last week, the fat finger of 'obesity' pointed squarely towards the ubiquitous coffee shops that line our streets and the calorific breakfasts they peddle. Prof Tom Sanders, head of diabetes and nutritional sciences at King’s College London, told a medical conference that many of us are unaware that the breakfast muffins and lattes we consume can amount to almost half the recommended daily calorie intake for women. Put another way: with obesity rates threatening to overwhelm the NHS, our breakfast habits are helping to kill us.
Furthermore, Simon Stevens, head of the NHS, described obesity as “the new smoking”, costing £5.1 billion a year. One in four of the adult UK population is obese, and two in three overweight. Prof Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, argues similarly, warning that one in 10 deaths in England and Wales is caused by excess weight. Being fat, she says, has become the norm.

And it all begins with breakfast. Over the past 20 years, supersized US-style coffees (and the pastries tantalisingly offered alongside them) have become a mainstay of British culture as many work longer hours and, as a result, skip breakfast at home. Costa Coffee has 1,755 outlets nationwide and plans to add another 150 this year, taking it towards a target of 2,200 by 2018. In May, Pret A Manger – which has more than 240 outlets in Britain – announced that its £2.35 porridge pots were its bestselling items last year, with more than 3.2 million sold. Bananas, the 2012 bestselling item, were bumped back to second place. If such healthy products were all we were eating, there would be no problem. But they’re not. Far more synonymous with these coffee chains are large, syrup-laden drinks topped with marshmallows and cream, with a pastry on the side. A Starbucks rise and shine muffin contains 461 calories. Accompanied by a Venti whole milk signature hot chocolate with whipped cream, that’s a further 690 calories.

According to Dr Emma Williams at the British Nutrition Foundation, most breakfast muffins represent one fifth of your saturated fat allowance and one quarter of your carbohydrate allowance. Ranked under Britain’s food traffic light system, she says, they would be given a red light for the number of calories they contain – yet there is little consumer information.

“It is much more difficult to control your calorie intake when you grab something for breakfast as you don’t really know what you’re putting in,” says nutritionist Claire Baseley. “People often make the mistake of thinking a drink doesn’t count. A bowl of cereal and milk and a piece of fruit will be about 250 calories. A muffin and a coffee instead could add up to 800 calories a day. Over the course of a year, you could be putting on up to one pound a week.”

The cost of such items mean coffee shop breakfasts are having a particular impact on middle-class waistlines. A daily takeaway habit of a Pret double berry muffin (£1.50) and strong latte (£2.45) costs £894 a year.

“It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking obesity is a problem of the poor,” Baseley says. “But there are as many middle-class people becoming overweight and obese. It is about poor diet choices. With the middle classes, everyone is in a rush and people think grabbing things [to eat] is the answer. We need to go back to basics.”

Prof David Haslam, a GP and chairman of the National Obesity Forum, agrees. For him, the idea that we should eat breakfast “like a king” – a phrase adopted by Costa Coffee – lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper is a fallacy. “I don’t eat breakfast and I don’t think it is the most important meal of the day,” he says. “In fact, they’re calories we could do without. The body is adaptive enough to cope without a bowl of cereal in the morning. We have evolved from caveman to where we are today, so could adapt to doing without an expensive muffin from Starbucks. “The food industry is always saying there is no such thing as bad food, just a bad diet – but that is something with which I profoundly disagree.”

Our love affair with coffee shops arguably started 20 years ago with the television series Friends. The ensuing years, however, have fuelled a very British love affair and a problem of our own making. Cake for breakfast? Too many of us can no longer resist it.


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