Starbucks' Christmas Tree Frappuccino Is a Chemical Nightmare, Science Says

We asked a food scientist for answers.

All military historians know that Starbucks has been quietly leading the war on Christmas for many years now. In its latest offense, the caffeinated drink empire has released a delicious seasonal treat for the whole family: the Christmas Tree Frappuccino.

While it might look like a delicious dessert — or an ill-fated glob of guacamole, depending on the picture — a food scientist tells Inverse there’s more to this innocuous frappe than you think.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, this is how Starbucks, sitting atop its throne of sweet, candy-coated deceit, bills the beverage:

Delicious mocha and peppermint are blended with milk and ice, topped with a festive tree made of matcha infused whipped cream, a caramel drizzle and candied cranberries finished off with a strawberry tree “topper.”

Yes, it sounds incredible. Yes, it will leave you buzzing with 15 milligrams of caffeine and holiday cheer. But, of course, a cursory glance at the ingredients tells a different story. Unsurprisingly, there are 50 grams of sugar in a grande, along with some hard-to-pronounce preservatives in the drink’s syrups, including potassium sorbate, sodium citrate, sodium benzoate, and more.

“Sodium benzoate is a preservative against microbial growth,” Rich Hartel, a food scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells Inverse. “So some company made that syrup and ships it to Starbucks, which means it has a fairly long shelf life. The shelf life of that syrup has to be 6 months or longer.”


From a business perspective, it makes sense why Starbucks would use so many preservatives in its syrups. These things can last a long time, and unsavory mold won’t grow inside. But certain ingredients in this frappe can have potentially harmful effects — emphasis on potentially.

Take sulfites for example. While sulfites prevent food from browning, they’ve also been linked to allergies in certain people — so if you want to indulge in a Christmas frappe, just keep that in mind if you have certain medical conditions.

To reiterate, the Starbucks Christmas Tree Frappuccino will almost definitely not make you sick. It might even fill you with the spirit of Christmas, though that’s about it.

Still, it’s interesting to know that so much chemistry goes into a seemingly simple beverage. There’s science even down to the caramel.

“Soy lecithin [in the caramel] is an emulsifier,” Hartel says. “It’s a modified triglyceride — a molecule that bridges water and oil. There’s undoubtedly some fat in there, so someone thought the caramel needed lecithin to distribute the fat uniformly throughout. Caramels usually have lecithin in them in order to disperse the fat into nice fat globules.”

Here’s the thing: If you’re yearning for some yuletide cheer — in sugary form — you might as well try the Christmas tree frappe. Who knows, maybe it’ll even give you some X-Men powers.

Check out this video on how to smoke an Old-Fashioned.

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