Retrofit Blog

Sip or Skip: Pumpkin Spice Latte

October 8, 2014

If it felt to you like Fall came a little earlier this year, it's probably due at least in part to the fact that Starbucks rolled out its most popular seasonal drink, the Pumpkin Spice Latte (or PSL as it's affectionately known) in late August–before you even had time to switch off your air conditioning and lament the passing of Labor Day.

Pumpkin latte

The popularity of the hot-beverage equivalent of a pumpkin pie slice can't be underestimated. Since its introduction more than a decade ago, Starbucks has sold 200 million-plus PSLs. The drink also has its own Facebook page and a Twitter handle (@TheRealPSL) with 93.8k followers as well as a hashtag, #PSL. The appeal, in a nutshell: The spicy, pumpkin flavor, which is now synonymous with cooler days and warm insides, signals the countdown to Thanksgiving Day. Still, drinking up doesn't have to mean bulking up.

Fortunately, it's entirely possible to have your latte and lose weight, too. If you order wisely, you can drink one or two PSLs a week without impeding your progress. But you also need to plan ahead so you can factor those beverage calories into your total calories for the day.

Before you start special ordering, it's helpful to have a handle on exactly what ingredients are in a PSL. The Starbucks website describes the drink as a "handcrafted signature espresso beverage that features freshly steamed milk, rich and creamy pumpkin flavored sauce, and warm seasonal spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and clove. The beverage is finished with a dollop of whipped cream and Starbucks pumpkin spice topping."

What the site doesn't mention is that there's no actual pumpkin in the latte, but there are two doses of Caramel Color Level IV, which may be considered a carcinogen. (Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of Consumer Reports, recently petitioned the FDA to take action to limit caramel coloring in soft drinks.) Also, the pumpkin-flavored sauce, used to give a mouth feel more similar to pumpkin pie than thinner syrup, contains an estimated 8g sugar per pump. (There are three pumps in a Grande, or 24g out of a total 49).

On the plus side, the drink does contain cinnamon, which has been studied in the treatment of Type 2 diabetes. However, only one type of cinnamon–cassia cinnamon–was shown to have medicinal benefits when taken daily in capsule form for up to four months. (Participants took between 1g and 6g a day; 1 teaspoon is equal to 4.75g.) Coffee may also have some health benefits. A growing body of research shows that coffee drinkers, compared to nondrinkers, are less likely to have Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and dementia. They also have fewer cases of certain cancers, heart rhythm problems, and strokes.

The potential health benefits of the beverage are all well and good. But you still need to think about the bottom line: in this case, your waistline. The easiest way to save on calories and fat is to order your PSL with skim milk and skip the whipped cream. By doing so, the calorie count for a Grande drops from 420 to 260 and the total fat content decreases from a whopping 17g to 0. To minimize sugar intake, you can also experiment with fewer pumps of faux pumpkin sauce.

There are also healthier alternatives on the coffee shop menu. Two other hot beverages sold at Starbucks, a Skinny Chai Latte (210 calories; 0g fat) or Hot Apple Cider (120 calories; 0g fat) are just a few. But, buyer beware: the hot cider has 20g sugar. It's natural fruit sugar, which is preferable to added sugars. However, nix the squirt of caramel sauce with which baristas top the beverage.

Another option: Whip up a healthy version of PSL at home, using this Retrofit Healthy Recipe for Pumpkin Pie Latte, which includes some actual pumpkin, and is rich in fiber and vitamin A.

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Amy Margulies Retrofit Registered Dietitian

Amy is the Lead Registered Dietitian at Retrofit and a Certified Diabetes Educator. She has been educating about healthy eating for nearly 20 years. She helps clients find realistic ways to improve their overall health while successfully managing their weight.

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