Seasonal drinks can contain a lot of calories and sugar, but some tricks can help you enjoy the same flavors in a healthier way.
Coffee drinkers who want to avoid gaining weight this fall would be wise to avoid pumpkin spice lattes, or at least to indulge only on occasion or modify the concoctions, according to dietitians.
Now that it’s September, the seasonal dessertlike drink has already returned to Starbucks as well as Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, and independent coffee shops.
Nutrition experts are concerned about the drink’s significant amount of calories and sugar.
“Pumpkin itself is healthy. Cinnamon and nutmeg are fine. But pumpkin spice lattes are about sugar,” said Katie Ferraro, R.D., M.P.H., a dietitian, nutrition consultant, and assistant clinical professor of nutrition at the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of San Diego.
A 16-ounce size of Starbucks’ version with 2 percent milk and whipped cream has 380 calories and contains 50 grams of sugar. That far exceeds the American Heart Association’s recommendation that women consume no more than 25 grams of sugar each day.
Officials at Starbucks did not respond to requests from Healthline for an interview for this story.
“The concept of pumpkin and spices, there are so many health benefits,” said Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D., a dietitian and manager of wellness nutrition services at Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. “Unfortunately, that’s similar to saying apple pie is healthy because it’s apple. It’s taking a concept that’s healthy and making it more of a dessert type of drink.”
Likewise, Ferraro said that there can be benefits to coffee and caffeine in moderation, such as improved clarity.
“It’s very far removed from a coffee drink,” she said. “I really recommend to my clients that if a coffee drink has more than 25 to 50 calories, don’t do it. Most people don’t have room in their calorie budgets for a pumpkin spice latte. Think of it like an ice cream sundae. It’s a sometime food, a dessert food.”
Calories may not fill you up
Some data suggest that ingesting calories from a drink may not promote as much satiety as, say, eating a 250-calorie whole wheat bread sandwich containing healthy fats, Ferraro said.
“Sometimes we don’t register the calories that we drink,” she said.
Consuming calorie-laden drinks could lead to excessive caloric intake, being hungrier later, and unwanted weight gain, Ferraro said.
An article on Wired.com cites studies that concluded the rush of sugar from a liquid does unhealthy things to your brain. Among other things, researchers say it can cause a food addiction.
“There is no benefit you can get out of sugar in your diet,” Kirkpatrick said. “If you feel good, it’s only temporary. Once it goes away, you’re kind of looking for more. It’s a vicious cycle.”
That said, there are ways to enjoy pumpkin spice lattes.
“If you have one every season, it’s not going to kill you,” said Kirkpatrick. “It starts to become problematic when you have one every morning on your way to work.”
That goes for everyone.
“If they have diabetes and they’re dying to drink it, I will work it into their meal plan,” Ferraro said of her clients. “There is no food you can’t have with diabetes.”
Keep the flavor, cut the sugar
The dietitians also spoke about how to enjoy similar flavors without such a high caloric and sugar-laden punch.
Ferraro suggested the use in coffee of pumpkin spice creamers, which are portion controlled.
Making the drink at home can allow you to control the ingredients, Kirkpatrick said.
“With my patients, I often tell them how to alter the drink to make it a little bit healthier,” she said.
Instead of consuming the sugary flavorings in a typical pumpkin spice latte, you can top coffee with pure whipped cream and spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and allspice.
Using almond milk or cashew milk is a good option that isn’t necessarily healthier but can bring down the calories, as can skim or nonfat milk, Kirkpatrick said. And you could trade the calories for the whipped cream.
Another option is frothing milk and topping your coffee with it along with spices.
“I’ve actually made whipped cream with a little bit of canned pumpkin in it as well,” Kirkpatrick said, referring to pure pumpkin you can buy without any added ingredients.
“Think of ways you can negotiate better numbers,” she said.
Options can include getting a smaller size.
And perhaps time will reduce the impact of the drinks, which were introduced by Starbucks in 2003.
“I’m waiting for this whole fad to go away,” said Ferraro.