This article was written by one of our contributors; dietitian – Maeve Hanan
‘Superfood lattes’ are colourful drinks made with milk, or plant-based milk, made with so-called ‘superfoods’.
This article will explore the nutritional properties and health claims related to three of the most popular superfood lattes: charcoal, turmeric and matcha.
What Are ‘Superfoods’?
Some people find it surprising that most nutrition professionals don’t use the term ‘superfoods’. This is actually a media and marketing term, with no specific nutritional definition, but it is used to refer to a food which is known to be healthy. For example, blueberries are commonly called a ‘superfood’ because they are high in antioxidants.
As Dietitian Catherine Collins put it at an event by The Rooted Project: “superfoods are just normal foods with really good PR!”.
The reason that many Dietitians and Registered Nutritionists don’t like this term is because it places certain food on a health pedestal, whereas all foods can have a place in a healthy diet. In fact, it could be unhealthy and restrictive if you only ate so-called ‘superfoods’.
In Europe the word ‘superfood’ is not allowed to appear on food labels by itself, because there isn’t good evidence to say there are specific health benefits linked to this vague term (1, 2). But ‘superfood’ can be used on a label if it is related to a specific approved health claim (2).
That being said, foods which are promoted as ‘superfoods’ can be very nutritious. So let’s take a look at whether superfood lattes live up to the hype (and the price tag!).
This is made by mixing milk with turmeric and sugar, vanilla or syrup.
A 240ml turmeric latte made with semi-skimmed milk contains*:
- 133 calories
- 4.1g of fat
- 2.5g of saturated fat
- 0.25g of salt
- 14g of sugar
- 7.9g protein
- 0mg of caffeine
- 271mg of calcium
- 66mcg of iodine
- 212mg of phosphorus
- 2.1mcg vitamin B12
- 0.53mg riboflavin
Note: the nutritional value of a turmeric latte will vary a lot depending on the type of milk used. For example an oat or almond ‘milk’ will contain much less protein than cow’s milk, and may not contain iodine.
Turmeric is a spice which contains an antioxidant called curcumin (which gives turmeric its bright yellow colour). Curcumin has been associated with reducing stress and inflammation in the body, which may have further benefits in terms of promoting health and reducing the risk of chronic disease (3). For example, some studies have found a reduced level of inflammation in the body when patients are given 1000mg of curcumin per day (4, 5).
There is some evidence that curcumin may:
- Improve joint health for those with arthritis (6)
- Reduce symptoms and rate of relapse in those with ulcerative colitis – in doses of 1000mg of curcumin twice per day (7)
- Reduce the risk of heart attack – in daily doses of 4g pre and post heart surgery) (8)
- Reduce the growth of cancer cells – in doses of 100 – 200mg per day over a long period of time (however this is based on observational and lab-based studies so we can’t tell whether this has a direct impact on humans) (9, 10)
- Reduce the risk of diabetes – when those with impaired glucose tolerance take 1500mg of curcumin for 9 months (11).
However, the current level of evidence isn’t strong enough to routinely recommend the use of curcumin as part of disease prevention or treatment. For example, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently concluded that there isn’t enough evidence to confirm a cause and effect relationship between consuming curcumin and improvements in arthritis (6). Similarly, most of the evidence related to curcumin and cancer can’t be directly applied to humans (10).
Turmeric powder (which is used to make a turmeric latte) only contains about 3% curcumin (12). Therefore a turmeric latte made with one teaspoon of turmeric (about 2g) would only contain about 60mg of curcumin (which is similar to the amount found in fresh turmeric root as well). As most of the health benefits are associated with 500 – 2000mg of curcumin per day, the amount present in a turmeric latte is unlikely to have much of an impact.
It is important to note that EFSA advise 3mg per kg per day as the recommended safe limit of curcumin to consume on a daily basis over a lifetime – which works out as 180mg for a woman weighing 60 kg (9 and a half stone) (13). The most common side effects related to consuming curcumin are: diarrhea, nausea, headaches, rashes and yellow stools (3).
Furthermore, curcumin also isn’t very active in the body (which is known as ‘bioavailability’). Although combining curcumin with black pepper has been seen to increase the bioavailability by 2000% (3). So if you have a turmeric latte, it might be worth adding some black pepper to this!
Overall, a turmeric latte provides a range of nutrients based on the type of milk it has been made from. Although the curcumin found in turmeric is associated with some health benefits, a turmeric latte doesn’t contain enough curcumin to have a meaningful impact on health conditions.
A matcha latte is made by combining your choice of milk with matcha and sugar or honey.
A 240ml matcha latte made with semi-skimmed milk contains*:
- 135 calories
- 4g of fat
- 2.5g of saturated fat
- 0.25g of salt
- 16g of sugar
- 8.5g protein
- 15.5mg of caffeine
- 287mg of calcium
- 69mcg of iodine
- 218mg of phosphorus
- 2.1mcg vitamin B12
- 0.59mg riboflavin
Matcha is made of dried and powdered green tea leaves. This is high in a type of polyphenol called catechins which act as antioxidants in the body. Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) is the main catechin found in green tea and matcha (14). Matcha also contains some potassium, manganese, magnesium, B vitamins, folate, caffeine, and an amino acid called l-theanine (15).
The best evidence related to the health impact of matcha and green tea is a possible reduction in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and blood pressure (16, 17).
There is also some evidence that consuming green tea may reduce the risk of liver disease, stroke, osteoporosis, dementia and certain types of cancer (18, 19, 20, 21, 22). But there is currently not enough evidence to advise specific doses of green tea or matcha to help with preventing or managing these conditions.
More is not always better when it comes to antioxidants, as consuming more than 800mg of EGCG has been associated with liver damage (23). A matcha latte usually contains about 1 teaspoon (2g) of matcha powder, which contains about 236mg of catechins (including 30mg of EGCG) on average (24). So you are unlikely to have a harmful intake of catechins from drinking matcha lattes, but more caution is needed if using green tea supplements as these have been associated with severe liver damage.
Overall, a matcha latte provides possible health benefits which are similar to having a cup of green tea, as well as the nutritional benefits of a glass of milk. However, some of these can be high in sugar so they aren’t always the “healthiest” choice of drink.
This usually contains milk, activated charcoal and extra flavourings such as vanilla, honey or sugar. Activated charcoal isn’t an option on nutrition analysis software, but as a charcoal latte is mainly made of milk, the nutritional content will be very similar to a turmeric latte (described above).
Charcoal has a reputation for exerting health benefits and ‘detoxifying’ the body. Activated charcoal can absorb chemicals in our gut, so it is used to treat poisoning or drug overdoses (25). There is also an EFSA-approved health claim that consuming 1g of activated charcoal before and after a meal may reduce excessive flatulence (26). However, there isn’t good evidence to say that this has an impact on bloating (26).
Activated charcoal may have a role in removing harmful waste products like urea in those with chronic kidney disease (27). Furthermore, two studies from the 80s found that taking 4 – 32 grams of activated charcoal per day may help to reduce total and ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol for people with high cholesterol levels (28, 29), but this isn’t very well established. For comparison, a charcoal latte is likely to contain around 2-3g (1 teaspoon) of activated charcoal.
Despite popular belief, charcoal doesn’t bind well to alcohol so it isn’t an effective hangover cure (30). However it can reduce our absorption of micronutrients like calcium as well as medication, by binding to these and eliminating them from the body. A high intake of charcoal can also lead to nausea, vomiting or constipation (31).
It’s also important to highlight that a healthy body does a great job of detoxifying itself, using our kidneys, liver, lungs and skin. So there is no reason to consume charcoal with the aim of ‘detoxing’.
Beyond a possible reduction in flatulence, the main health benefits of a charcoal latte will be related to the milk or plant-based milk that it contains. There may be some additional benefit for those with kidney disease or high cholesterol, although the amount of charcoal present in a charcoal latte is unlikely to have an impact.
An ordinary 240ml coffee-based latte made with semi-skimmed milk contains*:
- 110 calories
- 6.2g of fat
- 3.8g of saturated fat
- 0.2g of salt
- 6.2g of sugar
- 7.2g protein
- 62mg of caffeine
- 199mg of calcium
- 30.3mcg of iodine
- 185mg of phosphorus
- 1.4mcg vitamin B12
- 0.4mg riboflavin
A 240ml latte made with almond milk contains*:
- 50 calories
- 2.4g of fat
- 0.2g of saturated fat
- 0.27g of salt
- 5g of sugar
- 1.1g protein
- 64mg of caffeine
- 253mg of calcium
- 0mcg iodine
- 61mg phosphorus
- 0.8mcg vitamin B12
- 0.5mg riboflavin
- 253mg of calcium
- 0mcg iodine
- 61mg phosphorus
- 0.8mcg vitamin B12
- 0.5mg riboflavin
Therefore the main difference between an ordinary latte and most superfood lattes (excluded matcha lattes) is the fact that superfood lattes usually contain much less caffeine. This may be a useful swap for those who are trying to cut back on caffeine – especially if this is impacting your sleep, bowels, heart rate or anxiety levels. Whereas other people may feel better for continuing to include some caffeine in their day.
There also tends to be slightly more sugar in superfood lattes, as syrup, honey or sugar are often used to sweeten these (although some people add sugar to a regular latte anyway, in which case it wouldn’t be much different). Superfoods lattes contain slightly more vitamins and minerals when you compare the same portions, but this is because they contain more milk, as 30 – 60 ml of milk has been replaced with coffee in a regular latte.
It is worth mentioning that coffee also contains polyphenols, and having 3-4 cups per day is associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer (32). However, pregnant women need to limit their caffeine intake to 200mg per day, which works out as two cups of instant coffee or one cup of filtered coffee.
Superfood lattes contain mainly milk, with a small amount of sugar plus charcoal, turmeric or matcha. Therefore the nutritional content is very similar to whichever milk it is made from.
There is some evidence that each of these ‘superfood lattes’ may specific health benefits, although the small amounts of ‘superfood’ ingredients used in these lattes reduces the chance that these can make a significant health impact. In fact there is much more evidence to support the health benefits of coffee compared to these ‘superfoods’ – so it turns out that a regular latte was the real ‘superfood latte’ all along!
*nutritional values based on analysis using Nutritics software
(1) EUFIC (2012) “The science behind superfoods: Are they really super?” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.eufic.org/en/healthy-living/article/the-science-behind-superfoods-are-they-really-super]
(2) FSA “Information on Food Labels” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.safefood.eu/SafeFood/media/SafeFoodLibrary/Documents/Education/Whats%20on%20a%20label/GCE-Information-on-Food-Labels-Classroom-Slides.pdf]
(3) Hewlings & Kalman (2917) “Curcumin: A Review of Its’ Effects on Human Health” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5664031/]
(4) Moghadamtousi et al. (2014) “A review on antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal activity of curcumin” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24877064]
(5) Kim & Clifton (2018) “Curcumin, Cardiometabolic Health and Dementia.” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30250013]
(6) EFSA (2017) “Curcumin and normal functioning of joints: evaluation of a health claim pursuant to Article 13(5) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/4774]
(7) Hanai et al. (2006) “Curcumin maintenance therapy for ulcerative colitis: randomized, multicenter, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17101300]
(8) Wongchareon (2012) “Effects of curcuminoids on frequency of acute myocardial infarction after coronary artery bypass grafting” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22481014]
(9) Ravindran et al. (2009) “Curcumin and Cancer Cells: How Many Ways Can Curry Kill Tumor Cells Selectively?” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2758121/]
(10) Cancer Research UK (2018) “Turmeric” [accessed March 2019 via: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancer-in-general/treatment/complementary-alternative-therapies/individual-therapies/turmeric]
(11) Chuengsamarn et al. (2012) “Curcumin Extract for Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes” [accessed February 2019 via: http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2012/07/02/dc12-0116.short]
(12) Tayyem et al. (2006) “Curcumin content of turmeric and curry powders” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17044766]
(13) EFSA (2010) “Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of curcumin (E 100) as a food additive” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/1679]
(14) Chowdhury et al. (2015) “Protective role of epigallocatechin-3-gallate in health and disease: A perspective” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0753332215302353]
(15) Rains et al. (2011) “Antiobesity effects of green tea catechins: a mechanistic review” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21115335]
(16) Zheng et al. (2012) “Green tea intake lowers fasting serum total and LDL cholesterol in adults: a meta-analysis of 14 randomised controlled trials” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21715508]
(17) Khalesi et al. (2014) “Green tea catechins and blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials” [accessed March 2019 via: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00394-014-0720-1]
(18) Arab et al. (2012) “Green and black tea consumption and risk of stroke: a meta-analysis” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19228856]
(19) Yin et al. (2015) “The effect of green tea intake on risk of liver disease: a meta analysis” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4538013/]
(20) Liu et al. (2017) “Association between tea consumption and risk of cognitive disorders: A dose-response meta-analysis of observational studies” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5522147/]
(21) Shen et al. (2009) “Green tea and bone metabolism” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19700031]
(22) Boehm et al. (2009) “Green tea (Camellia sinensis) for the prevention of cancer” [accessed March 2019 via: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD005004.pub2/abstract]
(23) EFSA (2018) “Scientific opinion on the safety of green tea catechins” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/5239]
(24) USDA (2007) “USDA Database for the Flavonoid Content of Selected Foods” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/80400525/Data/Flav/Flav02-1.pdf]
(25) Juurlink (2015) “Activated charcoal for acute overdose: a reappraisal” [accessed February 2019 via: https://bpspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bcp.12793]
(26) EFSA (2011) “Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to activated charcoal and reduction of excessive intestinal gas accumulation (ID 1938) and reduction of bloating (ID 1938) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006” [accessed February 2019 via: https://efsa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2049]
(27) Schulman (2006) “A nexus of progression of chronic kidney disease: charcoal, tryptophan and profibrotic cytokines” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16361855]
(28) Neuvonen et al. (1989) “Activated charcoal in the treatment of hypercholesterolaemia: dose-response relationships and comparison with cholestyramine” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2612535]
(29) Kuusisto et al. (1986) “Effect of activated charcoal on hypercholesterolaemia.” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2874369]
(30) Hulten et al, (1986) “Does Alcohol Absorb to Activated Charcoal?” [accessed February 2019 via: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/096032718600500311]
(31) Amigo et al. (2010) “Use of activated charcoal in acute poisonings: clinical safety and factors associated with adverse reactions in 575 cases” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20537361]
(32) Poole et al. (2017) “Coffee consumption and health: umbrella review of meta-analyses of multiple health outcomes” [accessed February 2019 via: https://www.bmj.com/content/359/bmj.j5024.long]