How Good Is Wellness?

Some lattes purport a variety of health benefits. But do they actually help you, and how much?

The cafe table was white, and the lattes were bright yellow, green, and pink. Behind the table was a wooden bench covered in lounge pillows — some navy blue, some pale blue, some patterned with green leaves. Pristine, clean windows looked out onto significantly less clean Front Street. 

Even if I hadn’t been at the Australian-inspired cafe Bluestone Lane — which recently opened its sixth Bay Area location — on a reporting assignment, I still would have arranged the lattes in the middle of the table to take a picture. The colors were too vivid, too beautiful, to resist. 

Beyond beauty, the vibrant hues also signal potential health benefits and nutritional value — which explains why the lattes are listed under the “Wellness” section of Bluestone Lane’s menu. The golden latte derives its color from turmeric, a spice native to India and Southeast Asia, which “is good for detoxifying the body and reducing inflammation,” according to the menu. The green latte is made with matcha powder that “naturally detoxifies the body, is rich in antioxidants, and provides a valuable source of fiber and vitamins.” And the pink latte gets its unmistakable shade from beetroot, a vegetable “rich in antioxidants” that “aids in digestion.” 

At $5 for an 8-ounce wellness latte, you’d better hope that the drinks really do have health benefits, and that you really will leave the cafe with a detoxified, uninflamed body. Otherwise, you may only get a pretty Instagram photo out of it. 

But for many customers who frequent trendy health cafes like Bluestone that may have been their goal all along. It’s hard to say, given that the line between wellness and the appearance of wellness — often understood as beauty — is becoming increasingly muddled. 

Do Bluestone Lane’s wellness lattes actually promote short- or long-term health? And even if they don’t, would it matter to consumers? 

Whatever wellness is, it’s booming. The global wellness economy comprised a $4.2 trillion (!) market in 2017, up from $3.7 trillion (!) in 2015, and has been growing nearly twice as fast as the global economy, according to recent data from the Global Wellness Institute. 

Healthy beverages play a big role, says Beth McGroarty, GWI’s vice president of research and forecasting, pointing out that healthy eating, nutrition, and weight loss made up the second-largest sector of the global wellness economy in 2017 with a $702 billion market. 

She rattled off examples: Aloe vera water. Turmeric seltzers. Mushroom coffee. CBD coffee. Broccoli coffee. Beet lattes. Sweet potato or yam lattes. Juicing. Kombucha. Low- or no-alcohol mocktails infused with probiotics and other supplements. Adaptogen powders. 

“Trendy coffee shops and wellness supermarkets are infusing all kinds of herbs and mushrooms into what they call ‘functional beverages,’” McGroarty says. “The claim is that they act as regulators for chemical and emotional stress responses in the body. And Ground Zero for this is L.A. and the Bay Area.” 

Wellness is particularly resonant in the Bay Area due to the prominence of the tech industry, she tells SF Weekly. “Because of the tech landscape and mentality, there’s a lot of biohacking — using technology and science to optimize your health and your performance. But there’s also an exhaustion with tech. More and more tech people are learning that their industry is toxic, and they created the hell we all live in, so they want more silence and nature and wellness and disconnection.” 

This is where lifestyle coffee shops like Bluestone Lane come in. Many American cafe chains revolve around the concept of the to-go coffee, McGroarty says. But Bluestone, with its gorgeous color palette, comfortable lounge pillows, and lengthy menu of healthy foods and beverages, is designed to be a relaxing sit-down experience centered on community and wellness. Beyond food and drink, it also offers a wide variety of community programming, including live music, comedy, and arts and fitness events, and has partnered with SoulCycle in New York and Equinox fitness clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“In wellness right now, the biggest buzzword is community,” McGroarty says. “Because there’s this massive loneliness epidemic where people are spending all of their lives in front of screens and remote work is isolating so many people, whether it’s a wellness resource or coffee shop or coworking space, everyone’s trying to build community.” 

The irony, of course, is that many people mediate their wellness experiences through screens and social media. In the hour or so I spent at Bluestone’s Front Street location, almost every single person who came into the cafe proceeded to take photos, from numerous angles, of their lattes and avocado toast and oatmeal bowls. 

Wellness trends that “aren’t as visual, like going to a dark spa room, haven’t had as big of an impact on younger cultures” as healthy eating and drinking have “because they’re not shareable experiences,” McGroarty says. “If it’s not shareable, it’s not worth doing.” 

The good news is that even if you’re partially buying colorful wellness lattes because they’re Instagrammable, you’re still going to reap some health benefits. 

Bluestone’s 8-ounce wellness lattes are made with steamed almond milk and a teaspoon of the appropriate spice, according to a barista. The turmeric powder also includes cinnamon, ginger, and black pepper, and the matcha latte is topped with cocoa powder. 

Liz Lipski, a clinical nutritionist and director of academic development for nutrition and integrative health at the Maryland Institute of Integrative Health, says that these ingredients have proven health benefits, but not necessarily when ingested in such small quantities. 

“A teaspoon of beet powder equates to maybe a tablespoon of beets. But normally I might eat half a cup of beets,” Lipski says. “So the drink doesn’t really give me a lot of beet. Nevertheless, beets are demonstrated to have heart-protective benefits … they help your blood vessels relax so your blood flows better.” 

However, for spices like turmeric, a teaspoon is a “healthy amount,” Lipski says, adding that the golden latte would be “really good for digestion” because turmeric and ginger lower inflammation, cinnamon lowers blood sugar levels, and black pepper aids in digestion. 

When it comes to matcha, “we know that green tea has so many benefits,” Lipski says. “It’s cancer-protective, inflammation-protective, aids in cognition, mood, and human brain function, reduces anxiety, and improves active working memory.” She adds that a teaspoon of green tea powder is a “reasonable amount to see a health benefit,” but it would be necessary to drink around three cups of green tea per day in order to see long-lasting benefits. 

So are the wellness lattes “elixirs of life that are going to lead to miraculous changes? I don’t think so,” Lipski says. “Nonetheless, they are way better than what most people are drinking,” like soft drinks or coffee laden with cream and sugar. 

But you don’t have to spend $5 on wellness lattes in order to drink healthily. Lipski says she makes her own golden milk and almond milk by the gallon for a fraction of the cost in cafes, and adds that you can make kombucha for less than a dollar. This might be the best way to participate on your own terms in the wellness economy, which has often come under fire for only being accessible to the wealthy.

It’s also important to take into account what you actually like, she adds. “Do you like drinking carrot apple beet juice? If you do, and it makes you feel good, drink it.” But if not, it’s probably not worth spending your money on it.  

For what it’s worth, I thought Bluestone’s beetroot latte tasted like tepid vegetable water. It may have been good for me, but I had trouble getting it down. It’s not something I would ever drink again. The turmeric latte was pungent, a sensation only heightened by the ginger. I liked the taste, but found it almost painful to drink. The matcha latte was far and away the best-tasting of the wellness lattes (and the best-selling, according to the barista). Now I just needed to drink two more cups of it, every day for the rest of my life. 

I left the cafe with quite a few pictures on my phone and a rosy glow to my cheeks. Of course, I could have been imagining the glow. But if I felt like I was glowing, wasn’t that enough? 

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