What to Know About Pumpkin Spice Lattes, From a Nutritionist Who Loves Them

They're back at Dunkin' and Starbucks this month!

As summer winds to an 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 PSL fan like me, here's some good news: The cozy fall beverage is back earlier than ever in 2020. Dunkin' (the donut chain) debuted its pumpkin latte on August 19, a news release states, and Starbucks' PSL is now available across the US and Canada, the company announced today—August 25.

The return of Starbucks' fan favorite and the release of Dunkin's "new" Signature Pumpkin Spice Latte 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 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 2% steamed milk foam has 300 calories, 11 grams of fat, 40 grams of carb, and 11 grams of protein, and 39 grams of sugar. Substituting whole milk would presumably bump up the calorie and fat content. 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.

Tip: Starbucks tells Health that customers can customize their PSL. Ask for fewer pumps of pumpkin spice sauce, less whip, or no whip, for example, if you're looking to cut calories.

Dunkin' Pumpkin Spice Latte

Dunkin' doesn't publish the ingredients for its PSL, but according to the company's nutrition guide, a small signature pumpkin spice hot latte with whole milk has 300 calories, 11 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein, 42 grams of carb, and 38 grams of sugar.

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.

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 tablespoons canned pumpkin puree

½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (or ¼ teaspoon cinnamon and ⅛ teaspoon each ground nutmeg and ground ginger)

Pinch of sea salt

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

½ cup unsweetened almond milk

½ cup hot brewed coffee

2 teaspoons pure maple syrup

1 tablespoon almond butter

  1. In a saucepan over low heat, combine pumpkin, pumpkin pie spice, sea salt, vanilla, and almond milk. Cook, stirring until warm and fragrant, about 3 minutes.
  2. Transfer pumpkin mixture to a high-speed blender and add coffee, maple syrup, and almond butter. Blend until well mixed and frothy. Drink immediately.

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 private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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