As fall makes its approach this season, with it comes the return of an autumnal favorite among coffee lovers: the pumpkin spice latte.

Pumpkin and spice sound like pretty harmless ingredients, right? It may be tempting to curl up with a cozy cup of this seasonal classic as the temperatures drop this fall, but a quick look at the ingredient list reveals some pretty shocking details.

The ingredient list is the best place to start when questioning the nutritional quality of a food or beverage. It’s where food manufacturers have to be the most transparent about what’s really in their product. Let’s take a deep dive to see exactly what we’re dealing with when it comes to the pumpkin spice latte.

What’s in a Pumpkin Spice Latte?

Ingredients:¹

  • Milk
  • Pumpkin spice sauce [sugar, condensed skim milk, pumpkin puree, contains 2 percent or less of fruit and vegetable juice for color, natural flavors, annatto, salt, potassium sorbate]
  • Brewed espresso
  • Whipped cream [cream (cream, mono and diglycerides, carageenan)]
  • Vanilla syrup [sugar, water, natural flavors, potassium sorbate, citric acid]
  • Pumpkin spice topping [cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, sulfiting agents]

Let’s break down a few of these ingredients for a closer look.

Milk, condensed skim milk, and whipped cream: Dairy is one of the most common food allergies we see come up on patient tests.² Non-organic dairy like the kind used here is made from the milk of cows treated with growth hormones and antibiotics, both of which drive inflammation and can lead to endocrine disruption. Condensed milk is a shelf-stable product typically containing 40-45 percent sugar. It is a highly processed ingredient made from skim milk or skim milk powder, anhydrous milk fat, and water.

Sugar: If you look at the ingredient list, you’ll see multiple references to sugar throughout. Give the nutrition label a quick scan and you’ll see that a 16-ounce pumpkin spice latte contains 50 grams of sugar. That’s the equivalent of nearly three Snickers bars! Clocking in at 52 grams of carbohydrates, a pumpkin spice latte has more carbs than four slices of bread. The negative effects of sugar on the body are far-reaching, not the least of which include contribution to diseases like type 2 diabetes, cancer, and fatty liver disease as well as obesity, reduced immune cell activity, and hormonal disruption.

Mono and diglycerides: These common food additives act as product emulsifiers and stabilizers. They are commonly derived from low-quality vegetable oils like cottonseed oil or safflower oil, highly genetically modified cash crops with no nutritional value. The omega-6 fats in these oils are highly oxidized as well, which can contribute to inflammation and also lead to arterial plaque and heart complications.³

Carageenan: This extract is derived from seaweed and added to products to act as a thickener and gelling agent. Sounds natural enough, right? Not so fast. Recent research has revealed that carageenan can actually be very inflammatory and toxic to the human digestive tract.⁴ Because it is added to many “natural” foods, it can be a surprisingly sneaky cause of digestive upset and is worth avoiding when possible.

Natural flavors: Though derived from natural (plant or animal) sources, “natural flavors” are manufactured in a lab. They are flavor-enhancing additives designed to make processed foods taste better and therefore more addictive. The term “natural flavors” can legally be used as a smokescreen for many other ingredients, including MSG and chemical stabilizers. Currently the FDA does not require food labels to say what’s in their “natural flavors” unless the ingredients include a common allergen like milk, eggs, fish/shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, or soy.

Potassium sorbate: This chemical additive is synthetically produced from sorbic acid and potassium hydroxide. It is used to prolong the shelf life of a food and act as a mold inhibitor. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) ranks potassium sorbate low on the toxicity scale, but notes there is strong evidence that it can be a human skin toxicant and allergen.⁵

Citric acid: While citric acid naturally occurs in citrus fruits like lemons and limes, food manufacturers use a formulated type of citric acid as a food preservative to cut costs. Pfizer (yes, the same Pfizer that dominates the pharmaceutical marketplace and manufactures unsafe vaccines) manufactures citric acid on an industrial scale by fermenting sugar with Aspergillus niger, a common black mold. You read that right: black mold! There is concern over how exposure to this mold may, over time, contribute to impaired immune function and other negative effects.⁶

Sulfiting agents: Sulfiting agents (namely sulfur dioxide, sodium and potassium metabisulfite, sodium and potassium bisulfite, and sodium sulfite) are used to prevent spoilage and discoloration. The FDA banned the use of sulfites on fresh produce in the 1980s and today requires that any detectable sulfite levels in a food product be listed on the label. Many individuals react to sulfites. Consumption of sulfiting agents can lead to asthmatic symptoms like wheezing and difficulty breathing but also headaches and dizziness. (If you experience headaches after drinking wine, there’s a good chance you’re reacting to the sulfites in the wine.)

The Bottom Line

A deep dive into the ingredient list of a seemingly harmless seasonal beverage is quite revealing, isn’t it? The bottom line is that the average pumpkin spice latte is an inflammation-driving, allergen-laden, and blood sugar spiking food-like product that holds no place in a healthy diet. 

Food manufacturers purposefully engineer products that get consumers physiologically addicted, paired with intense marketing campaigns that appeal to an individual’s emotions, consumeristic nature, and biology. In his bestselling book Salt Sugar Fat, author Michael Moss writes that although food companies may employ complex manipulation strategies to further their profits, “we [consumers], ultimately, have the power to make choices. After all, we decide what to buy. We decide how much to eat.”

The choice lies with you. How you choose to spend your food dollars and fuel your body today will determine the future of your health. Every day you have the opportunity to set yourself up for success with the choices you make.

So this season, consider skipping the Starbucks line and try making your own pumpkin spice latte with our healthier recipe using just five ingredients: organic coffee, pumpkin, maple syrup, coconut milk, and pumpkin spice.

You can still enjoy the flavors and festive spirit of the season, just without the chemical additives, processed dairy, and refined sugar. Your body will thank you!