DALLAS - Like many Starbucks customers, Tim Myrick loved Frappuccinos - the sweet coffee drink topped with whipped cream - and didn't bother with the nutritional fine print.
"You really don't want to know what's in the good stuff," the Dallas psychologist says.
But now he's on a diet, battling through Frappuccino withdrawal.
"I have to fit into my tuxedo by August 14 and I don't want to buy a new one," says Myrick, as he nursed a regular coffee instead. "I'm about 15 pounds away from that."
Starbucks is trying to help. In the latest episode of fast-food giants aiming at health-conscious customers, the coffee chain just introduced a line of "light" Frappuccinos with fewer calories and carbohydrates than the usual treats.
"I've been working here four years, and people have been asking for it all that time," says Callie Tackett, an assistant manager of a Starbucks in Highland Park, Texas.
"We get so many people on the South Beach Diet, the Atkins Diet and the others," she says. "You have to stick to it absolutely, or it doesn't work. I keep hearing, `Finally!'
"Now they can try to fit in their addictions and stay on the diet."
Jenny Walsh, a spokeswoman for Starbucks in Seattle, points out that the company always offered nonfat milk, artificial sweeteners - and a basic cup of coffee with 10 calories.
"We've always provided options for whatever fits our customers' lifestyles," she says.
But it also offered delicious drinks that, nutritionally speaking, amount to a Big Mac in a cup.
Satisfy your craving with a 24-ounce Strawberries and Creme Frappuccino, for example, and you're sipping 780 calories, 19 grams of fat and 133 grams of carbohydrates.
That clobbers the Big Mac - 600 calories, 33 grams of fat and 50 grams of carbohydrates - in two of three categories.
"The bottom line is that the calories in a beverage count the same as the calories in food," says Jayne Hurley, a nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. "The problem is I doubt most people go into Starbucks as a meal replacement. It's a pick-me-up, or a treat."
Bernadette Latson, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, says she had a client who drank two ice cream drinks a day during work breaks - and couldn't figure out why she wasn't losing weight.
"She was really careful about what she ate," the dietitian says. "But she was getting another 800 calories a day without thinking about it."
Walsh says Starbucks worked for two years to refine the Frappuccino into a less fattening concoction with the same taste. Low-fat milk and artificial sweeteners cut 30 to 40 percent of the calories.
For example, a 16-ounce regular caramel Frappuccino adds 430 calories, 16 fat grams and 61 carbohydrate grams to your daily total. The light Frappuccino trims those numbers to 310, 14 and 39. Hold the whipped cream and you're down to 180, 1.5 and 36.
Heather Winchester, a regular at Starbucks, says she likes Frappuccinos, but avoids them because of the calorie count. After trying a free sample of the light version, she declares what the coffee moguls in Seattle want to hear: "It's really good. I'll order this."
Myrick agrees. "They're listening to the customers," he says.
Nutritionists applaud that trend in the fast-food industry, from low-carb colas to McDonald's salads to the news that Krispy Kreme is working on a reduced-sugar doughnut.
"They're more compelled to offer a choice, and that's a good thing," Latson says. "I think it puts the responsibility on the consumer to choose the right thing and gives them less excuse to blame someone else."
Hurley concurs, but still wishes that the menu displaying the price of a 24-ounce Strawberry Frappuccino also proclaimed its 780 calories.
"I don't think they'd sell as many," she says.
THE DRIVE-THRU: YOUR FILL-UP CHOICES
Driving through on the way to work? Starbucks is the latest fast-food emporium trying to lighten the caloric load for those so inclined. Here are some of the best - and worst - options for calorie-conscious commuters.
Dunkin' Donuts Banana Walnut Muffin 540 calories 23 g fat
Jack in the Box French Toast Sticks 560 calories 18 g fat
7-Eleven Cheese Danish 310 calories 17 g fat
Taco Cabana Bacon and Egg Breakfast Taco 246 calories 12 g fat
McDonald's Fruit `n Yogurt Parfait 160 calories 2 g fat
Smoothie King 20-ounce Peach Slice low-fat smoothie 341 calories .2 g fat
WHAT ARE YOU EATING?
Most fast-food companies list nutritional information on their Web sites. To compare different restaurants, go to these sites:
Burger King Biscuit with Sausage, Egg and Cheese:
645 calories, 46 g fat
McDonald's Sausage McMuffin with egg:
450 calories, 28 g fat
Einstein Bros. Everything Bagel with whipped cream cheese:
410 calories, 9 g fat
Whataburger Potato, Egg and Cheese Taquito:
427 calories, 16.5 g fat
Krispy Kreme Original Glazed Doughnut:
200 calories, 12 g fat
Starbucks 24 oz. Java Chip Frappuccino with whip:
650 calories, 25 g fat
Starbucks 24 oz. Java Chip Frappuccino Light without whip:
360 calories, 10 g fat
Starbucks 20 oz. cup of coffee:
15 calories, 0 g fat
(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.