WHEN SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT...

The Hazards and Healthfulness of Pumpkin Spice Latte Season

Oct. 6, 2020 - Katie McCallum

It may be considered a "basic" drink by some, but you know there's certainly nothing basic about that first sip of a pumpkin spice latte on a chilly fall morning.

Affectionately referred to as a PSL, a pumpkin spice latte tastes like fall in a cup and feels like a warm hug for your soul. It's a cozy mouthful of spices that's sweet, but not too sweet....ok, so, it's admittedly very sweet. Regardless, it's your go-to coffee drink as soon as its back on the menu.

And — as you order PSL after PSL this fall — you don't really want to know, but you want to know: Is there any chance whatsoever that something this tasty could ever be considered healthy?

"Pumpkin itself is very nutritious! It's rich in vitamin A and is also a source of fiber and potassium, which are great for your heart health," says Amanda Beaver, wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist. "Of course, we all know that a standard pumpkin spice latte from a coffee shop is more than just coffee and pumpkin puree, and that's where this pumpkin-flavored fall favorite can fall short on the healthy scale."

But don't give up on your favorite fall drink just yet! Whether you're ordering from a coffee shop or being your own barista at home, here's everything you need to know about a pumpkin spice latte, including ways to make it as healthy as possible.

How a pumpkin spice latte is made

Each coffee shop makes a pumpkin spice latte slightly differently, but the core ingredients of a PSL are:

  • Milk
  • Pumpkin spice sauce
  • Espresso
  • Whipped cream
  • Vanilla syrup
  • Pumpkin spice topping

"The downsides of a PSL are that the calories and sugar are in liquid form and it's not a good source of important nutrients — meaning this drink isn't as filling or nutritious as eating a balanced breakfast," explains Beaver. "For instance, two eggs scrambled in olive oil, accompanied by a medium banana and a slice of whole grain toast have about the same amount of calories as a medium-sized PSL — but leave you feeling more full for a longer period of time."

And, brace yourself, because the PSL's rap sheet is about to get worse.

"The biggest downside of a pumpkin spice latte is its high sugar content, with a medium-sized PSL easily exceeding your recommended daily limit of added sugar," warns Beaver. "A medium-sized PSL contains a whopping 50 grams of sugar, which is about as much as 10 Oreo cookies."

Yikes.

For context, if we even needed it, the American Heart Association recommends that women limit added sugar to just 25 grams per day, and men limit added sugar to no more than 36 grams per day.

Given all of this, you're probably left wondering: Is it even possible to make a pumpkin spice latte healthy??

How to order a healthier pumpkin spice latte

So, you're standing in line at your favorite coffee shop and reeealllly want to order a pumpkin spice latte, but you don't want a complete calorie and sugar overload. Is there anything you can do? Beaver says yes! Sort of.

"A grande pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks contains 2% milk, two shots of espresso, four pumps of pumpkin spice sauce and whipped cream on top," says Beaver. "When ordering your drink, keeping these standard ingredients and amounts in mind can help you order a healthier version."

Tips for ordering a healthier pumpkin spice latte:

  • Order a Tall instead of a Grande, as this smaller drink will have fewer calories and sugar
  • Ask for two pumps of pumpkin sauce instead of four pumps, which will reduce the amount of sugar in the drink
  • Skip the whipped cream, which will reduce the amount of saturated fat
  • Request almond or nonfat milk, which will reduce the number of calories of the drink

Obviously, all the options above — except ordering a smaller size — will affect the taste and flavor of your drink, so it may not taste as good. But, Beaver has another piece of good advice.

"The bottom line is that you can reduce the sugar and calories of a pumpkin spice latte, but if you decide to order the regular, full-calorie version that's okay, too!" shares Beaver. "The main problem with a pumpkin spice latte is that it's typically thought of as a coffee drink rather than a dessert. If you shift your mindset to think of a PSL as a treat, you can enjoy and savor the regular version of this delicious fall drink on occasion as a dessert."

How to make a healthy pumpkin spice latte at home

PSL fanatics rejoice! According to Beaver, you can make a delicious, yet healthier, PSL yourself at home.

"Making your own pumpkin spice latte at home is an easy way to control every ingredient that goes into your drink," says Beaver. "One great thing about going DIY is that you can customize it to your liking using your favorite products and nutrition preferences. And here's a pro tip: Using maple syrup as the sweetener adds even more of a delicious fall flavor."

Healthy Homemade Pumpkin Spice Latte

Recipe:

  • 1/4 c. of your favorite strong hot coffee (or 2 shots of espresso)
  • 1 c. unsweetened milk*
  • 1 Tbsp. pumpkin puree
  • 1 Tbsp. maple syrup
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
  • Optional: whipped cream (or whipped coconut cream) for serving

Directions:

  1. Brew coffee and add to a large mug and set aside

  2. Stove top method: In a small saucepan, add the milk, pumpkin puree, vanilla and pumpkin pie spice. Whisk together until smooth and heat until milk is hot (but not boiling), stirring to prevent scalding. (By the way, this method results in a fabulous smelling kitchen!)
    Microwave method: Add the milk, pumpkin puree, vanilla, and pumpkin pie spice to a large mug or glass measuring cup. Whisk together until smooth and heat in 30 second intervals until hot. (This method is great if you're in a rush.)

  3. Froth your milk and pumpkin mix from step 2 using a milk frother, or whisk by hand. Pour the mixture over the coffee/espresso, top with some whipped cream or some of the remaining frothed milk mixture (optional), sprinkle lightly with more pumpkin spice and enjoy!

*Customize your PSL with an unsweetened milk option: 2% and whole milk will create a creamy drink, whereas almond milk will taste watery. Soy and coconut milk will be creamier than almond milk. If you only have sweetened soy/almond milk, try adding only 2 teaspoons of maple syrup.

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