It’s that time of year again: Decorative gourds sit in giant bins outside grocery stores, we pull on our coziest sweaters (even though it’s still 75 degrees out) and orange and red leaves begin to dot the trees. Yes, all of these signs mean fall has arrived — and it also means we’ve officially entered pumpkin spice latte season.
This sugary coffee beverage, more commonly referred to as the PSL, has practically been the official symbol of fall festivity since it made its debut at Starbucks in the early 2000s.
But is there such a thing as too many PSLs? The answer from nutritionists is a resounding yes, but they don’t want you to give up your PSL habit altogether.
Here’s what the nutritional breakdown of the PSL looks like
You’d be hard-pressed to find a coffee shop that doesn’t sell a PSL in the fall, but the nutrition facts are different at each chain.
Registered dietitian Kylene Bogden, who serves as a wellness adviser for Love Wellness, breaks down PSL nutrition facts at some of the most popular coffee chains for a standard medium-sized beverage (these are the facts for drinks ordered as is, without any ingredient swaps):
- Total calories: 340
- Grams of sugar: 55
- Grams of fat: 5
- Total calories: 380
- Grams of sugar: 50
- Grams of fat: 16
- Total calories: 320
- Grams of sugar: 44
- Grams of fat: 3.5
- Total calories: 320
- Grams of sugar: 44
- Grams of fat: 10
- Total calories: 450
- Grams of sugar: 76
- Grams of fat: 8
Considering that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend people eating 2,000 calories per day consume a maximum of 50 grams of added sugar per day and most of the sugar in a PSL is added, this isn’t great news, sugar-wise.
Bogden notes that Peet’s has the “best” PSL from a health perspective, and Caribou has the worst.
How many PSLs can you drink before they start to wreak havoc on your health?
When considering the health implications of the PSL, registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, the author of “The Better Period Food Solution,” says it’s important to look at the whole picture.
“Without any disrespect to the PSL, the issue isn’t exactly the PSL itself,” she explained. “It’s more about what the body then craves afterward, which is likely not going to be a healthy and lean meal. The exposure of the sugar from the PSL to the brain then sets it up to crave more and more sugary foods, potentially leading to less nutritious choices later on.”
She adds that if you can have a PSL without letting it impact your other food choices that day, it can be enjoyed in moderation.
Bogden has a more specific recommendation: Stick to one small pumpkin spice latte per day or less. “That being said, this answer can be quite different for each person and it is dependent upon current diet, lifestyle habits, genetics and gut health,” she explained. “The goal should be to listen to your body. If you’re dealing with fatigue, bloating, or excess mucus production, the answer might be none or perhaps opting for a smaller size.”
Hacks for making your PSL a little healthier
Whether the thought of drinking fewer PSLs is getting you down or you’re a little astounded by the sugar content in the classic PSL, we have good news: There are a lot of ways to make your PSL healthier.
“Skip the added whipped cream or caramel drizzles and opt to get the smallest size possible,” Beckerman advised. You can also ask for fewer pumps of the pumpkin spice flavoring. “Although this may decrease the intensity of the sought-after pumpkin flavor, it will likely decrease the sugar content,” Beckerman said. “To stretch your PSL and your dollar, you can mix half your PSL with regular coffee and enjoy it that day and use the other half of your PSL the next day with a fresh batch of regular coffee. Just be sure to refrigerate your PSL and consume it the next day.”
Bogden notes that you can make your PSL a bit healthier by skipping the dairy milk and opting for almond or coconut milk. “Potentially caffeine sensitive? Don’t be afraid to ask for half caffeine,” she added. “You can also ask for a small vs. medium or large.”
If you don’t feel like getting too fussy with your coffee order, skip Starbucks and Dunkin’ and explore local businesses near you. “Many times, the healthiest PSL lies in your local mom and pop shop or health food restaurant! Most cities have caught on to the trend and you can find a version of a PSL at just about any coffee shop and now even restaurants are adding it to their menus,” Bogden said. “Smaller companies typically are not producing these drinks at such massive volumes and, as a result, the ingredients are often slightly better quality.”
And believe it or not, some popular coffee companies are also crafting significantly healthier PSLs or PSL-like beverages. “Rook Coffee makes a seasonal pumpkin spice cold brew that has 0 grams of added sugar and is simply infused with pumpkin spice aromatics and flavors without any added sugar,” Beckerman said. “Or you can buy a pumpkin spice draft latte from La Colombe if you’re on the go, which is made with real pumpkin puree and only has 4 grams of added sugar.”
Finally, there’s no harm in whipping up a healthier PSL at home. “For a rich, creamy, delicious and much more nutrient dense homemade PSL, take the extra step to blend your pumpkin puree, full fat canned coconut milk, nutmeg and cinnamon,” Bogden said. She suggests using a blender or hand frother, and, if you prefer your latte on the sweeter side, trying 1-2 teaspoons of pure maple.
With a few tweaks, you can have your pumpkin spice latte and drink it too. Enjoy!