If you like frothy coffee, then a cappuccino is probably one of your favourite espresso-based beverages. This is my go-to order if I'm at a nice coffee shop and feel like indulging in a treat, or need a pick-me-up to make it through the day (perks of not being addicted to caffeine). However, I realised as of late that I couldn't adequately describe exactly what it meant to order a cappuccino. I knew it was loosely related to the ratio of milk, espresso, and foam, but that was about it. That ratio is important to know both from a taste and a nutrition perspective, so I decided to find out.
A cappuccino a traditional Italian drink made from equal proportions of espresso, steamed milk, and milk froth (i.e. foam) and usually topped with a light dusting of chocolate powder. The foam is typically microfoam -- the bubbles are so small that they’re barely visible, resulting in a smooth texture that many avid cappuccino drinkers are very fond of.
Obviously, cappuccinos require milk. The exact type of milk used varies extensively with customer preference and barista ability, but the general rule is as follows: the lower the fat content of the milk, the easier it is to froth (but the less flavour there is). Non-fat and skim milk easily provide large, airy bubbles, but lack the rich taste of whole milk. When frothed properly, whole milk imparts the desirable microfoam texture while also providing a pleasurable gustatory experience.
Suffice it to say, cappuccinos in the United States aren’t made with as much love as they deserve. Both the Grande (16 oz) and the Venti (20 oz) size drinks at Starbucks contain a 2 oz doppio espresso shot (i.e. a “double shot”). It doesn’t take a college graduate to see that the math doesn’t add up here -- 2 ounces of espresso leaves 14-18 ounces for milk and foam. Because the ratio of espresso:milk:foam is almost impossible to achieve in these giant cups, it’s likely that your cappuccino will turn into a latte (basically just steamed milk and espresso) very quickly.
With all of this being said, a “cappuccino” made with whole milk will have more calories than the exact same drink made with a non-fat or skim version. A Grande (16 oz.) cappuccino at Starbucks made with whole milk contains 140 calories and 7 grams of fat (or 11% of the FDA daily-recommended value). The same size beverage made with non-fat milk has only 80 calories and 0 grams of fat. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the nutrition profile of either of these, but it’s all too easy to forget that these beverages count towards the FDA-recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories (or 1600-1800 if you’re a moderately active woman).
If you’re lactose-intolerant or avoiding dairy for some other reason, Starbucks also has almond milk, soy milk, and coconut milk options. A Grande soy cappuccino has 120 calories and 3.5 grams of fat (or 5% of the FDA daily-recommended value). However, it should be noted that a beverage made with any of these non-dairy options are by definition not technically cappuccinos. There is a science behind food foams (please feel free to ask me about it if you’re interested, I had to memorise all of it for a recent exam), and these milk alternatives lack the proper protein structure and content to stabilise the foam effectively. Obviously, if you’re allergic or intolerant to proper dairy it’s prudent to avoid it. However, if you are choosing a milk alternative by personal preference, be aware that it’s likely to be a subpar version of the real thing (and it’s not the barista’s fault!).
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Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program.