Maybe knowing that we’re all anxious to get 2020 over and done with, Starbucks released their famous (or notorious, depending on your perspective) Pumpkin Spice Latte in August this year. August! That’s more time than ever before for all you pumpkin spice afficionados start placing your orders and sipping on that quintessential taste of fall. However, I can’t help putting on my nutritionist hat whenever I hear someone referring to the PSL. This nostalgia-inducing hot beverage may taste good to some (I’m personally not a fan of heavy sweetness and artificial flavor), but it’s definitely not a healthful choice of beverage. Let’s look at what it contains.

PSL Macros

Before we even consider the ingredients of a pumpkin spice latte, let’s look at the basics. A Grande (the middle size, which is 16 fluid ounces) has 380 calories, 14 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 240 mg of sodium, 52 grams of carbohydrates of which 50 grams are sugar, and 14 grams of protein. It also has 150 mg of caffeine. For a woman trying to stick to a diet of around 1500 calories (a reasonable goal for weight loss), a Grande PSL is almost an entire meal’s worth of calories, about an entire day’s worth of fat, and twice the amount of sugar a woman should have for an entire day. Even if you aren’t working on losing weight, this is still a lot of fat and way too much sugar for anyone. Make it a Venti (the largest size) and you’ll get 470 calories, 16 grams of fat, 10 grams of saturated fat, half a gram of trans fat, 60 mg of cholesterol, 300 mg sodium, 66 grams of carbohydrates of which 64 grams are sugar, and 18 grams of protein. The only thing the PSL really has going for it is protein from the milk, but milk has other downsides (see this post), and I think we can all agree there are better ways to get protein than from high-calorie, sugar-laden fancy coffee drink.  

Starbucks PSL Ingredients

Now let’s look at what that PSL contains:

  1. Milk. If you don’t specify the type of milk you want, they will make your PSL with 2% milk. You can opt to change that to nonfat milk, whole milk, half-and-half, heavy cream (yikes!), or almond, soy, oat, or coconut milk. For all you vegans out there, don’t be fooled by the plant-milk options. Even if you order your Pumpkin Spice Latte with almond milk, the pumpkin sauce contains condensed skim milk, so there is no such thing as a vegan PSL at a Starbucks in the U.S.
  2. Pumpkin Spice Sauce. After the milk is the mysterious “pumpkin spice sauce.” For a long time, it was difficult to get Starbucks to reveal what was in this sauce. In 2015, it was revealed that the PSL didn’t actually contain any pumpkin at all. In response to the outcry, Starbucks did add pumpkin puree to their pumpkin spice sauce. Other ingredients include sugar (the main ingredient), condensed skim milk (the ingredient that makes the PSL non-vegan), fruit and vegetable juice for color, natural flavors (we may never know what those are made of), annatto (a natural food dye), salt, and potassium sorbate (a chemical preservative). I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound all that appetizing to me.
  3. Brewed Espresso. The Grande comes with 2 shots, which are the source of those 150 mg of caffeine—about the amount in 1-1/2 cups of brewed coffee.
  4. Whipped Cream. This contains cream, mono- and diglycerides (emulsifiers that hold the whipped cream together), carrageenan (another emulsifier that comes from seaweed and is used to make the whipped cream thicker), and vanilla syrup made from sugar, water, natural flavors, potassium sorbate, and citric acid.
  5. Pumpkin Spice Topping. This seems the most innocent of the ingredients, made mostly from cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves, but then they add sulfiting agents as a preservative to prevent bacterial growth. Yum?

This certainly isn’t the worst list of ingredients I’ve ever seen in a processed food, but I know you can do better. In fact, just looking at this list makes it pretty obvious to me that it would be easy to make a better version at home. In that spirit, here is my recipe for a DIY PSL you can feel better about.

The Vibrant DIY Pumpkin Spice Latte: A Healthier and Equally Delicious Choice

This recipe has the same basic ingredients as the Starbucks PSL without the chemicals and other unnecessary/unsavory additives. It’s also less sweet so you taste more of the pumpkin and spice flavor and less of that cloying dose of sugar. If you are transitioning away from your PSL addiction, you can add a little more maple syrup to make it sweeter, but I suggest calibrating down to 1 tablespoon eventually. It won’t take long before this tastes much better than the sugar-loaded version. The addition of turmeric for color also gives this version an anti-inflammatory boost. The Vibrant Pumpkin Spice Latte has just 140 calories, with just 5.3 grams of fat, no cholesterol, 259 mg sodium, 22.7 grams of carbohydrates of which only 14.3 grams are sugar, 3.7 grams fiber, 2.2 grams of protein, and 34% of your RDA for calcium, 14% for iron, 11% for potassium, and 9% for vitamin D. These stats are far superior to the Starbucks PSL, except for the protein. I suggest having 2 hardboiled eggs for breakfast or a snack, and you’ll make up the difference.

Vibrant’s DIY PSL Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces unsweetened almond or coconut milk
  • ¼ cup pumpkin puree
  • 1 tablespoon real maple syrup 
  • ¼ teaspoon real vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon turmeric
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • dash of cloves
  • 2 shots espresso or ¼ cup strong brewed coffee, hot
  • Optional: Whipped coconut cream for topping
  • Additional cinnamon and maple syrup drizzle for topping

Here’s How to Make it:

  1. Heat the milk in a saucepan or microwave until hot.
  2. Combine the hot milk, pumpkin puree, maple syrup, vanilla, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves in a blender and blend for 2 minute or until very frothy, starting on low and gradually increasing the speed to high.
  3. Pour the ingredients into a mug, then add the espresso or coffee.
  4. Top with the optional whipped coconut cream, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and a drizzle of maple syrup.
  5. Kick back and enjoy the pumpkin spice ambience.

I hope you enjoy this PSL upgrade. Let me know how you liked it!