Nutty Labels: Investigating Starbucks’ ‘Nut’ Syrup

in Food Allergy, Peanut & Tree Nut
Published: September 23, 2015
Starbucks' 'toffee nut syrup' isn't actually made with peanuts or tree nuts.Figuring out just exactly what's in that new seasonal beverage isn't always easy, as our investigation into Starbucks' ingredients revealed. Photo: Thinkstock

Latte sippers like to frequent Starbucks, but some Allergic Living readers with nut allergies have contacted us, alarmed by the company’s rotating menu of seasonal drinks. Turns out, some of them contain a so-called “nut syrup”.

These readers asked us: Which nuts does it contain? Allergic Living has investigated, finding, once again, that what’s called a nut isn’t always made from nuts.

The fall “limited time only” beverages being offered at Starbucks have appealing names such as Pumpkin Spice Latte or Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino. But while the latter’s title doesn’t indicate it, “toffee nut syrup” is one of its key ingredients – which only becomes clear after a visit to Starbucks’ website. Having said that, just what the “nut syrup” is made from isn’t clear from a website visit. So we emailed the company.

Nuts in Name, Not Syrup or Drink

“Starbucks Toffee Nut Syrup tastes of toffee, but does not contain peanuts or tree nuts,” Mary Saunoris, communications specialist for Starbucks, explained in an email.

She further stated: “We do not have peanuts or tree nut allergens in handcrafted, brewed, blended, condiments or espresso beverages.” (However, almond milk is in use.)

While reassuring, this isn’t obvious to allergic customers standing in line for a latte, so we asked Saunoris: If it doesn’t contain nuts, then why is it called a nut syrup? She replied: “All of our syrups are named based on flavor profile.”

Alright, but this still poses the question: How can a nut-allergic individual at their coffee shop know that what’s called nut isn’t, in fact, a nut?

Secret Shopper

When an Allergic Living contributor visited a store in Reno, Nevada recently, Starbucks’ signage was not illuminating. “We are actively working to make allergen information for our beverage selections available online,” Saunoris wrote in a followup email.

“In the meantime, if a customer has an allergen concern, they are encouraged to ask our baristas to check the ingredient labels in-store or contact our customer service team at any time.” Consumers can visit Starbucks’ communications website to find information on how to contact them for additional information.

On our visit, our shopper, mentioning a nut allergy, asked the barista about the fall menu’s Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino Blended Beverage, which the website describes as “espresso and steamed milk, blended with mocha sauce and toffee nut flavored syrup topped with sweetened whipped cream, caramel drizzle and a mixture of turbinado sugar and sea salt.”

The barista said it contained a “nut syrup,” but then became confused, noting (correctly) that the company “isn’t using nuts in beverages any more.” A co-worker handed him the bottle of syrup for further investigation. The barista read the label, and there were no nut warnings on it. But at least in this one instance, that was the extent of the clarification provided.

For the full scoop on Starbucks and its food allergy policies, see our latest article here.