To Starbucks, size matters

I almost didn’t get around to writing about this one while it was still somewhat timely. However, we’re still three months away from the actual change happening on a nationwide basis and there is no shortage of blog posts weighing in on this story, some of which are still being written as I’m putting the finishing touches on this one.

CultureMap Houston’s recent story about Starbucks introducing a new Trenta size takes a rather dim view of it. The story’s author, Dillon Sorenson, appears to be of the mindset that this is a contribution to the growing obesity problem in the US.

First a summary for those of you just now catching up. Starbucks is well known for its oddly named sizes: Tall (354 mL), which is actually the smallest of the three; Grande (473 mL), which, while larger than Tall, is still not the largest; and Venti (591 mL), which comes from the Italian word for “twenty” (the size is about 20 ounces). Starting in May, Starbucks will be adding a fourth size, the Trenta (916 mL), which again is derived from an Italian word, this one for “thirty” (though it’s actually closer to 31 ounces; you can hardly blame Starbucks for the fact “Trentuno” wouldn’t flow off the tongue quite as easily.

Anyway, Mr. Sorenson makes a rather dubious comparison to 7-Eleven’s infamous Big Gulp fountain drinks:

How big is 916 mL, you ask? Well, an average bottle of wine is 750 mL, and the average capacity of the human stomach is 900 mL. In other words, the Trenta is Starbucks’ version of the Big Gulp.

And later on, the more direct accusation that the Trenta is part of our obesity problem:

My vehement opposition to the Trenta is not about my snobbery. It’s about what this symbolizes for America. In a nation where 75 percent of the adult population is overweight or obese, the Trenta is the last thing that is needed. Of course, drinking coffee in such large quantities is bad for the brain and heart alike. But the caffeine is the least of my concerns: I am more worried about the sugar-filled syrupy beverages that Starbucks distributes under the guise of coffee.

Though I am not a huge fan of Starbucks, I find myself defending them here. First, Starbucks is doing what almost any corporation is destined to do: maximize profits. It would appear adding an additional size for its iced drinks is an attempt to do just that. I personally have wished that the sizes for at least iced tea didn’t stop at Venti for some time. (My usual order at Starbucks and similar coffee shops is iced tea, however sometimes during the coldest of the winter months I will order hot chocolate.)

And that leads into my second point: Starbucks wouldn’t be doing this if the demand wasn’t there. Again, you can’t fault Starbucks for giving the people what they want. If Starbucks doesn’t do it, their competitors will and take the profits away from Starbucks in the process.

My third point is a challenge to the notion that slightly larger portions of coffee and tea really contribute to an obesity problem. It would be far more effective for Mr. Sorenson to attack the many c-store operators that sell fountain drinks larger than whatever size he feels they should be. I’ve purchased and consumed 64-ounce fountain drinks (yes, that’s half a gallon) during my heyday as a courier. In hindsight, I’ll admit this was not one of my healthier choices; in fairness to me, I’m trying to avoid returning to that line of work as it was full of similar choices, a rant I’ll save for another day (and perhaps a different blog).

Even so, the demand is still there for super-sized products; while Mr. Sorenson’s angst and disgust may be justified, I think they are misdirected. Without demand, there is usually no supply. So, if anything, Mr. Sorenson should just ask the people out there “please don’t buy Trenta-sized drinks at Starbucks so they go away.” The only problem with that, of course, is that the hollowness of the entire viewpoint he espouses is then exposed to the sunlight.

My fourth point is in regards to economy of scale, with a bit of an environmentalist twist. I’ve been more than a casual observer of sizing and prices, especially with regard to sodas. It’s not entirely by choice, as I have more experience than I could ever want dealing with tight budgets. I postulate that the size of the drinks offered at Starbucks will do little to actually change purchase and consumption habits of their products, and from that and my other previous knowledge, I offer two points of theory: first, the same customers who would buy a Trenta-sized iced tea or iced coffee would probably just wind up buying two of a smaller size, and second, that it takes less material to make larger (Trenta) cups totaling a given capacity than it does smaller (Venti, Grande, Tall) cups. And from that, I conclude not only does a larger size make sense from a profitability standpoint, but from an environmentalist standpoint as well.

Yes, it’s a bit of a reach, and one that I’ll probably draw some heat for. But really, it all comes back to Starbucks doing what its customers are willing to pay for, providing a supply to satisfy a demand and make a profit. If you think a Trenta is too big, don’t buy it. But please, stay out of the way of those of us who want one.

Longer mealtime, smaller waistline?

Recently on Twitter (from @MyFitFoods who passed it on from someone else with protected updates) I found a chart which compares time spent eating to the national obesity rate. Now while the criteria used to define obesity may be a bit controversial (it’s a simple, no frills, percentage of the population with a BMI over 30) I think it’s good enough to get an idea of the overall trend.

It’s probably not realistic to expect a perfect trend line with a graph like this, and thus I’m not surprised that there are dots all over the place. Canada, Korea, Japan, Poland, Italy, and all three Scandanavian countries in the survey (Finland, Sweden, and Norway) are all below the trend line, while Mexico, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey are above it. The rest of the countries are either on or close to the trend line.

The US does not fit neatly at all into the trend with a sky-high obesity rate of around 34%. But it is obvious that the graph is trying to show that more time one spends at the table, the less likely one is to become obese.

The stark contrast between the US and Canada is puzzling. The US actually averages slightly longer meals than Canada, yet has the highest obesity rate on the entire chart.

I would be interested in seeing a graph sorted by profession. In my current day job (courier) I rarely have time to actually sit down for even a full half-hour lunch. There are days where I do what I know I really shouldn’t and just grab a bag of chips from the nearest convenience store, where usually the closest thing to a meal is a rather expensive bag of beef jerky (also a frequent “meal” of mine). Not surprisingly, even though I don’t consider myself “obese” it’s possible I would fit the controversial criterion used in this study. (I have no idea what my BMI is, but I’m around 5’11” (180 cm) and weighed in the range of 240 pounds (109 kg) last time I checked.)

This is one reason I want to move on to something else, where I can truly set my own schedule and take meal breaks as long as I want. Really, who doesn’t?