What to Know About Pumpkin Spice Lattes, From a Nutritionist Who Loves Them
As the summer winds to end, I start to get excited about all things fall, including sweater-and-boot weather, Halloween, and yes, pumpkin spice lattes! If you're a pumpkin spice latte fan like me, here's some good news: The cozy fall beverage is coming back earlier than ever in 2019. Dunkin Donuts is debuting their pumpkin latte on August 21, a news release from the chain states, and the Starbucks PSL returns August 27, according to store employees who leaked it to Reddit.
While it's too early to say whether the beloved PSL recipe will change, it leads us to wonder, is one brand's recipe healthier than the rest?
Well, here's the not-so-great, and not-terribly-surprising news: Most pumpkin spice lattes are high in sugar and processed ingredients. I haven't been able to find any versions that I would recommend from a nutritional standpoint as a daily habit. So my advice: Choose the PSL you like best (whether it's from DD or Mickey D's) and enjoy it as an occasional treat. Below you'll find my notes on three popular PSLs—plus a truly good-for-you recipe you can make at home.
Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte
The Starbucks website lists the ingredients in its Pumpkin Spice Sauce as sugar, condensed skim milk, pumpkin puree, 2% or less of fruit and vegetable juice for color, natural flavors, annatto, salt, and potassium sorbate. It's great that the company is using some all-natural additives, but the final ingredient is a common preservative.
A tall Starbucks PSL made with whole milk and whipped cream clocks in at 330 calories, 15 grams of fat, 40 grams of carb with 39 from sugar, and 11 grams of protein. To put that in perspective, a Starbucks Cheese Danish is lower in everything, including sugar, with 28 fewer grams than the PSL. So when you order a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte, enjoy every sip but just think of it as a dessert rather than a coffee.
Dunkin Donuts Pumpkin Spice Latte
Dunkin Donuts doesn't publish the ingredients for its PSL, but DunkinDonuts.com does offer a customization and nutrition tool that allows you to choose your milk, flavor, and sweetener. It calculates that a small drink made with whole milk, pumpkin swirl flavor, and no additional sweetener provides 230 calories, 6 grams of fat, 36 grams of carb (all as sugar), and 7 grams of protein.
If you're dairy-free or just prefer plant-based milk, almond milk is an option (though there's no nutrition info available). But it's unclear if the pumpkin swirl flavor itself is dairy-free.
McDonald’s Pumpkin Spice Latte
I like that Mickey D’s is transparent about their ingredients, but I'm not a fan of the ingredients themselves. The McCafe Pumpkin Spice flavored syrup contains: fructose, water, nonfat dry milk, propylene glycol, and 2% or less caramel color, natural flavor, potassium sorbate, xanthan gum, salt, sucralose, and extracts of annatto. The big red flag here is all the artificial additives, including faux sweetener (sucralose is the generic Splenda).
A small PSL made with whole milk contains 270 calories, 9 grams of fat, 41 grams of carb with 39 as sugar, and 10 grams of protein. That's more calories, carbs, and sugar than their Baked Apple Pie, which is a good reminder to enjoy a McDonald's PSL as a dessert.
Homemade Pumpkin Spice Latte
If you want to enjoy pumpkin spice lattes on the regular, try making healthied-up versions at home! Here's my recipe, which calls for all-natural ingredients and is packed with nutrients.
2 Tbsp. canned pumpkin puree
½ tsp. pumpkin pie spice (or ¼ tsp. cinnamon and ⅛ tsp. each ground nutmeg and ground ginger)
Pinch of sea salt
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
½ cup unsweetened almond milk
½ cup hot brewed coffee
2 tsp. pure maple syrup
1Tbsp. almond butter
This version provides 210 calories, 9 grams of plant-based fat, 19 grams of carb with 13 from sugar (primarily from the maple syrup), and 4 grams of protein from the almonds.
While these numbers may not seem terribly impressive, the biggest advantages here are the sugar savings compared to commercial pumpkin spice lattes; and the real food ingredients, which are bundled with bonus nutrition.
Just two tablespoons of canned pumpkin packs nearly a day’s worth of immune-supporting vitamin A. Maple syrup supplies a solid amount of manganese, a mineral that helps produce collagen and promote skin and bone health. And almonds have been shown to help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, and support weight loss. Cheers to that.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees.
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