It’s that time of year again! The leaves are starting to change as we enter the fall season, which for many people means sweater weather, crisp air, and, of course, pumpkin spice lattes.
Pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks (or any coffee shop) are a classic fall beverage. But have you ever wondered how these drinks may be impacting your overall health and well being?
Are pumpkin spice lattes bad for your blood sugar? And are all pumpkin spice lattes created equally?
In this article, we answer all these questions and more, plus share some healthier pumpkin spice latte options you can try making yourself at home.
Are Pumpkin Spice Lattes Healthy?
There are many factors to consider when it comes to what makes something “healthy.” Unfortunately, the classic pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks is known for its extremely high added sugar content, at 50 grams per 16 ounce cup.
However, the pumpkin spice latte itself, commonly referred to as the PSL, may not be inherently unhealthy. Instead, it’s the ingredients that can make or break the nutritional benefits or consequences of this drink.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s in a typical cup of pumpkin spice latte.
What is a Pumpkin Spice Latte Made From?
Milk is one of the core ingredients of any latte. If you tolerate dairy, milk can be a good source of fats, protein, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and some other trace minerals. Studies have shown numerous benefits to the consumption of dairy products in humans.
For non-dairy drinkers, you may opt for unsweetened almond milk which pairs well with the pumpkin spice flavors. However, other options such as soy milk or oat milk are also popular options available at most coffee shops.
Sweeteners and Syrups
One of the main ingredients in the classic pumpkin spice latte is sugar, which makes it a delicious, but not particularly blood sugar-friendly coffee option.
The type of sweetener or syrup used in your pumpkin spice latte may depend on where you go. In the case of Starbucks, the pumpkin spice latte is sweetened with two different forms of refined sugar: cane sugar and vanilla simple syrup.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar consumption. According to the AHA, men should consume no more than nine teaspoons of added sugar today, while women should aim for six or fewer teaspoons.
You can’t have a PSL without coffee of course, and coffee or (espresso in this case), has a surprising number of potential health benefits. However, it’s also important to consider that caffeine can have different effects on each person depending on:
- Your unique genetic makeup
- Your current state of health and medical history
- The amount of caffeine you consume
- How you time and use caffeine around other things like workouts and sleep
This response also seems to be impacted by other medical factors such as how likely someone is to develop hypertension. Those who may already be borderline hypertensive or with a positive family history appear to have more rapid and prolonged cortisol responses to caffeine than do low-risk individuals.
This might also partially explain why those with diabetes may be more likely to experience negative impacts from caffeine.For those who have been diagnosed with diabetes, caffeine may pose some unique risks and some research suggests reducing or removing caffeine for this group may improve glucose regulation. Research is ongoing and each person is unique, so it might be a good idea to test this out for yourself.
Pumpkin Pie Spice
Pumpkin pie spice is made of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves but no actual pumpkin or pumpkin related extract. These spices have their own unique health benefits.
Cinnamon may be beneficial for preprandial, or pre-meal, blood glucose. Ginger has anti-microbial effects in in vitro studies (conducted in cell cultures or test tubes). Similarly, nutmeg is shown in in vitro studies to have antimicrobial and antioxidant benefits much like allspice. Clove can be a potent antimicrobial agent, especially against some bacterial strains.
While there may not be enough of each spice in a latte to meet the recommended dosage for the full benefits, consuming them may still support your wellbeing. However, in vivo studies (conducted in living bodies) are still needed before drawing further conclusions.
Vanilla extract is made using vanilla pods, water, and ethanol. While the Starbucks PSL doesn’t contain vanilla extract, many home recipes recommend using this ingredient for added flavor.
If you love to bake, you’ll be very familiar with this potent ingredient. Although there is limited evidence on the health benefits of vanilla extract, one review in animal models suggested that high-quality vanilla extract may have some health benefits such as supporting blood glucose and possibly protecting against some neurotoxicities.
Pumpkin purée is made from cooked pumpkin that is blended until smooth, and this is the signature ingredient included in most pumpkin spice lattes. Pumpkin is a nutrient-dense vegetable packed with micronutrients such as potassium, and magnesium. It is also relatively low in carbohydrates.
Finally, all good pumpkin spice lattes are topped off with whipped cream. Whipped cream is heavy cream that has been “whipped” into a fluffy texture, and then typically combined with sugar, and sometimes vanilla extract.
Those who are dairy intolerant or want to reduce some of the sugar content of their drink may want to opt out of this PSL topping.
Our Favorite Holiday Drinks
You can indulge in healthier holiday drinks by making a few modifications and practicing moderation. Read on to find out more about our favorites
Are Pumpkin Spice Lattes Bad For Blood Sugar?
Your body’s blood glucose response to a pumpkin spice latte will depend on two things. One, your individual physiology and two, the ingredients and quality of the beverage. As we discussed earlier, the Starbucks PSL is very high in sugar, which makes it likely to cause a blood sugar spike, especially if you drink it on an empty stomach.
Here are a few ways you may make your pumpkin spice latte more blood sugar-friendly.
- Try making your own PSL at home and limiting the sugar content or using a sugar-free sweetener like stevia.
- Pairing with healthy fats and a source of protein. Eating a high protein and fiber-rich meal or snack before drinking your PSL may help blunt a potential glucose spike.
- Opt for a smaller serving size and aim to drink it slowly.
- Go for a walk or move your body however you like to help regulate your blood sugar levels after drinking a higher sugar beverage.
Four Healthier Pumpkin Spice Lattes to Make at Home
If you’re craving a holiday-themed coffee but want to avoid some higher sugar options, let’s look at some options you can make in the comfort of your own home. Remember that you can always adjust any recipe to meet your individual health goals and dietary restrictions.
1) Pumpkin Spice Latte at Home by The Kitchn
- 2 tablespoons pumpkin purée
- 1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice, plus more for garnish
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 to 2 shots espresso (about 1/4 cup)
- 1/4 cup cold heavy cream, whipped into firm peaks
Why We Love It
This recipe is a more comforting, indulgent take on the classic pumpkin spice latte, and can make you feel right at home. All you’ll need is a good espresso machine or coffee maker (a strong drip coffee can work in a pinch), a whisk or blender, and a saucepan.
To make this recipe more blood sugar-friendly, you can experiment swapping the sugar with stevia or another sugar-free alternative. If one of your health goals is weight loss, you can reduce the quantity of the heavy cream or omit it all together.
2) Easy Minimalist Pumpkin Spice Latte by Minimalist Baker
- 3/4 cup dairy-free milk
- 1/4 cup water
- 2-3 tablespoons pumpkin purée
- 1/2 heaping tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 pinch ground nutmeg
- 1 pinch ground allspice
- 1 pinch ground clove
- 1 pinch ground cardamom
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 ½ teaspoons maple syrup (or stevia to taste)
- 1 shot espresso
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Why We Love It
This recipe was made for those with multiple dietary restrictions in mind (from dairy intolerance to caffeine sensitivity). Using homemade cashew milk may also provide additional fats and nutrients for healthy blood sugar levels and support your wellbeing. To get in additional protein, try mixing in unflavored collagen powder or using soy milk.
3) Homemade Pumpkin Spice Latte by Ambitious Kitchen
- 2 shots espresso
- 1 cup milk of choice, preferably a milk that froths well
- 3 tablespoons pumpkin purée
- 1-2 tablespoons maple syrup, to sweeten
- 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Whipped cream for topping (optional but recommended)
Why We Love It
This is another great dairy-free recipe (apart from the optional whipped cream) that is simple to make and doesn’t require a whole lot of work. It’s perfect for lazy, cozy Sunday mornings! Remember that the maple syrup can always be substituted for a sugar-free alternative or omitted entirely if preferred.
4) Keto Pumpkin Spice Latte by Gnom Gnom
- 2 tablespoons pumpkin purée
- 1/2 teaspoon pumpkin spice mix
- 1-2 tablespoons golden erythritol allulose or sweetener of choice
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 240 ml almond milk
- 1 tablespoon full-fat coconut milk
- 2 shots espresso
Why We Love It
This keto pumpkin spice latte recipe is another great option for anyone looking for a lower carb beverage. It’s also dairy-free and uses sugar-free alternatives that are not likely to sharply spike blood sugar. Add in some unflavored protein powder for an extra blood sugar-balancing kick, and indulge in this lower carb take on the pumpkin spice latte.
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Heather has worked in healthcare and nutrition for over 15 years, with bachelor's degrees in Microbiology and Philosophy and a master's degree in Nutrition Science. Her professional background includes nutrition and diabetes research, nutrition education, medical writing, and extensive clinical work in a functional neuroendocrine specialty practice.