Since coming into the world 15 years ago, Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte has become a cherished American fall tradition. When the coffee giant rolls out the the PSL in late August, the drink’s die-hard fans celebrate its return by posting passionate declarations of adoration all over social media.
PSL devotees swear the drink tastes like a perfect fall day. But what exactly goes into a pumpkin spice latte, and what’s going into you when you drink one?
The secret to the PSL is in its sauce (without the sauce, it’s just a latte). But, unlike other chain restaurants we could name, Starbucks doesn’t keep the sauce a secret.
Starbucks is admirably transparent about its Pumpkin Spice Sauce ingredients, listing the ingredients on its site for all with an internet connection to see.
The PSL is made from sugar, condensed skim milk, pumpkin puree, two percent or less of fruit and vegetable juice for color, natural flavors, annatto, salt and potassium sorbate. Let’s break that down: condensed milk nearly always has sugar added. Sugar is already listed as the first ingredient in the sauce. Annatto is a plant-based condiment mostly used for food coloring and sometimes for flavor, making it a natural substance and calling into question what other “natural flavors” are included but unlisted under that umbrella term. The final two ingredients, salt and potassium sorbate, are really the same thing—the latter being a used as a preservative and the former simply for taste. So, in essence, the list is really sugar, some more sugar, a bit of pumpkin and vegetable juice, known and unknown “natural” flavors, salt and some more salt.
To get the full scope of the PSL’s nutritional profile, we have to examine an average order. A grande Pumpkin Spice Latte made with two percent milk and topped with whipped cream (as Starbucks suggests) has 380 calories, 120 of which are fat. This means you’re sucking down 22 percent of your daily allowance of fat (looking closer, it’s a ghastly 40 percent of your saturated fat) 18 percent of your cholesterol, 10 percent of your salt and there’s a whopping 50 grams of sugar in the cup. Skip the whipped cream and you’ll cut most of the numbers in half—not that 20 percent of your daily allowance of saturated fat first thing in the morning is suddenly good for you—but there’s still the same amount of salt and almost as much sugar (48 grams). Switch to skim and the fat content becomes negligible, but still the sugar and salt levels barely waver.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: deep inside, we knew this autumnal addiction couldn’t be healthy. That doesn’t mean you have to give it up entirely—though maybe you should rethink drinking liquid pie for breakfast.