Pumpkin Spice Lattes: How Unhealthy Are They Actually?

Starbucks PSLs are the fall coffee drink, of course. But are they a bad idea nutritionally?

Few moments in time are as magical as the first few weeks of fall. Winter is still a comfortable three months away, and those perfect 70-degree days are full of apple picking, soup simmering, fall-scented candles, cozy throw blankets and red and yellow-hued hikes. And of course, we would remiss if we didn’t mention the extreme amount of pumpkin spice latte sipping that goes on.

According to a survey conducted by OnePoll for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters last fall, 35% of respondents said they would name their child “Pumpkin Spice” if it meant having the flavored coffee for life. That shows that our collective obsession with pumpkin spice isn’t letting up anytime soon.

While there are a handful of ways to consume pumpkin-flavored coffee and a wide variety of coffee brands from Dunkin’ to Peet’s Coffee that sell it, this article focuses on nutrition facts for Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte, or “PSL,” which is by far the most popular option.

There have been more than a few rumblings about the festive PSL being a tad unhealthy. But how bad is it, exactly? We investigated — and here’s what you should know.

There's actually real pumpkin in the Starbucks PSL, but not enough to make a nutritional impact.
There's actually real pumpkin in the Starbucks PSL, but not enough to make a nutritional impact.

The nutritional benefits of PSL

To be clear, there are nutritional benefits to drinking Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes. But they don’t have the high antioxidant, vitamin A and lutein content that comes with eating real pumpkin. That’s because PSLs (sadly) do not contain very much actual pumpkin. Instead, they include something called “pumpkin sauce,” which contains very small amounts of pumpkin puree, along with lots of sugar and other things.

Another PSL ingredient? Milk.

“The first ingredient is milk, which is a plus,” nutritionist Jinan Banna told HuffPost. “Milk contains nutrients that are important for the body, such as protein and calcium.” The 16-ounce latte contains 380 calories, 14 grams of fat (8 of which are saturated) and 14 grams of protein.

So, while PSL isn’t without nutrients, the important thing to note here is the obscene amount of sugar Starbucks dumps into this drink. “That same 16-ounce latte contains a whopping 50 grams of sugar,” Banna pointed out.

Nutritionist Alyssa Northrop put it in perspective. “That’s about 12 teaspoons of sugar and equals the FDA’s recommended limit of total added sugars for the entire day, and about twice what the American Heart Association recommends in a day.”

In case you missed it, consuming an excessive amount of sugar is linked with everything from low energy and insomnia to cancer and heart disease. So, moderating your sugar consumption is key.

Is there a way to make PSL healthier?

Did we just ruin all those good fall feelings? The good news is that there are things you can do to make your PSL healthier.

“Ask your barista for only half the standard amount of pumpkin spice sauce,” suggested Northrop. “You’ll still get that beloved seasonal flavor with much less sugar. You can also opt to top your PSL with milk foam instead of whipped cream to cut back on calories.”

Banna noted that you can actually choose the amount of pumpkin sauce you want when you order online, making a custom PSL order easy, even in socially distant times.

You can make a PSL at home, too, which can be good for both your sugar intake and your wallet.

“I like to add pumpkin spice to my French press when I make coffee,” Banna said. “I pour my coffee as usual and add some unsweetened soy milk and stevia, or just some 2% milk. It tastes great and saves me all that added sugar.”

Though this is controversial, there are other fall-themed beverages that aren’t pumpkin spice lattes — and many of them are healthier.

“There’s always tea,” Banna said. “Some pumpkin spice teas consist of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves. When you add water, you get a calorie-free drink. You could add some low-fat milk and some stevia to make it a little bit sweeter and creamier for a much lower-calorie option than the latte.”

It’s also worth noting that there are a lot of different milk options, from almond and coconut milk to soy and whole milk. While many people have different dietary needs, the healthiest milk choice for most is probably almond milk, with 4 grams of sugar in the amount needed to make a tall latte (if we’re doing Starbucks measurements here) and just 80 calories. Whole milk, on the opposite end of the spectrum, contains 14 grams of sugar in a tall latte (and 180 calories). The amount of sugar added to other milks, especially plant-based varieties, differs by brand, so check your labels.

Chai tea is another great option. “Chai tea has many of the same spices as a PSL, including cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and top it with a splash of half and half for a creamy alternative,” Northrop said. “Add some honey if you’d like a dash of sweetness.”

But before you dive into chai, note that Starbucks and other coffee shops sell chai tea lattes that are made with a sugary syrup, and those tend to have just as much sugar as a PSL. So, if you’re keeping health in mind with your fall-themed beverage consumption, it’s best to consume chai as a steeped tea.

While PSLs in their traditional form may be a sugar bomb, there’s a lot you can do to make them healthier. So, hold the extra pumpkin sauce, start sipping and get ready to embrace fall.