Deconstructing Starbucks' PSL

Deconstructing Starbucks' PSL

Fall officially started on September 22nd in the northern hemisphere. The leaves are falling, pumpkins have been carved, and the smell of Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte (better known as the PSL) is in the air. Every fall like clockwork, I receive several questions from clients asking if Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte can be made healthier and vegan. So let's explore this!

Here's a fun fact: the trendy coffee chain started in 1971 in Seattle, Washington. The original concept of Starbucks was selling coffee beans to customers. The idea of selling coffee on the go was proposed but it was initially rejected (wonder what that poor sap is thinking now). Luckily, Starbucks eventually caved in and embraced the idea.

Peter Duke, director of espresso America for Starbucks, shared that the creation of the PSL started in a Liquid Lab in 2013. In this lab, a small group collaborated to develop pumpkin-inspired espresso beverages. As you can imagine, lots of ideas were thrown around. Eventually, through trial and error, a prototype of the pumpkin spice latte was launched in numerous stores to be tested. It passed with flying colors and was eventually officially sold worldwide.

The drink continues to be a seasonal customer favorite. But can it be made vegan? Let's recap what a vegan diet is real quick.

A vegan diet excludes all animal products: eggs, dairy, fish, meat, poultry, gelatin, and honey. It consists of foods derived from vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, beans/legumes, and grains. Most people choose to eat a vegan diet for health, environmental concerns, animal welfare, or food allergies. 

An increasing number of restaurants offer plant-based options now - the plant-based craze is really heating up! So it isn’t surprising that Starbucks has caught up with this trend. According to Global Food Institute, the plant-based retail market has increased by 27% to $7 billion in the United States in the last two years.

Non-dairy milk is the fastest growing market for plant-based products. In 2020, alt milk sales totaled $2.5 billion in the US. The industry has grown by 27% in the last two years. Large franchises like Starbucks really benefit from including dairy-free options on their menu.

Nutrient Analysis
Now that we have some background information, let’s look at some of the major nutritional highlights of this drink. Please note that this is not a full nutritional analysis of the drink. I will focus on a few items that are the most prominent based on the largest serving size.

Milk Pumpkin Spice Latte, Venti size
Calories: 470 kcal
Sugar: 63 g
Dietary Fiber: 0 g
Protein: 18 g

Pros: protein. 
For a venti-sized drink, there is a large amount of protein. Protein is beneficial for skin repair, cellular functions, and muscle growth. According to one study, protein is more fulfilling than carbohydrates or fats, which means it may make you fuller longer (1).

Cons: Excess calories
For a venti pumpkin spice latte, this drink has a whopping 470 calories. Overconsumption of high-calorie beverages has potential health effects. A venti-sized drink has 63 grams (15 tsp.) of sugar per serving! That is more than the recommended amount of added sugar per day. To put it differently, that is equivalent to two 2-ounce Snicker Bars, one 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola, 17 Chips Ahoy! Original Chocolate Chip Cookies, or 23 Starburst Original Fruit Chews.

Calories play a vital role in providing energy and assisting with other functions in the body. However, excess amounts of unused calories can accumulate and be stored as fat in the body.

Many studies have demonstrated that excessive calorie-rich processed foods may lead to weight gain, increasing the risk of developing obesity (2,3). Being obese may also raise your risk of acquiring other diseases including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. A potential concern with obesity is a condition called leptin resistance (4,5).

Leptin is one of the hormones in your body that tells you to stop eating. However, with leptin resistance, those signals don’t work well. As a result, it may be difficult to stay satisfied, leading to excessive calorie intake. In general, excessive calorie intake may be reduced by paying attention to portion sizes and increasing physical activity.

We all know that too much added sugar can increase our chance of dental cavities, so that's just one more reason to lay off the added sugar. Too much sugar can also lead to weight gain. There is strong evidence for the connection between high sugar intake and weight gain.

A systematic review looked at the association between weight gain and sugar-sweetened beverages in adults and children. The authors noted that several studies demonstrated a correlation between high consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and a higher body mass index, waist circumference, and body weight (6). Another study suggested similar findings but saw a positive relationship between sugar-sweetened beverages and the accumulation of visceral adiposity/ectopic fat (7). 

Another study looked at the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and their relationship to type 2 diabetes. Approximately 165 countries were included in this analysis. The study results showed that the consumption of sugar sweetened drinks significantly correlates with the prevalence of type 2 diabetes after adjusting for potential confounders such as obesity and being overweight (9).

Too much sugar may also have a negative impact on your liver, with some studies suggesting that excess sugar may increase your risk of non-alcoholic liver disease. Chronically overloading your body with sugar may lead to lipid accumulation and may damage your liver.

A double-blinded randomized trial looked at the effects of fructose and sugar in the liver. Ninety-four healthy men participated in this study for seven weeks. They were asked to consume 80 grams of sugar in addition to their usual diet. The results indicated that the sugar increased the liver ability to make fats, suggesting that it has the potential to negatively affect the liver (10).  An observational study noted that there was an increased risk of fatty liver disease with the regular consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (11). A review of numerous studies also found similar findings (12).

You may have noticed, this drink has no fiber. The recommended amount of fiber for Americans is 25-38 grams per day. A lack of fiber is associated with constipation, increased hunger, and weight gain.

What about the Vegan Pumpkin Spice Latte in the United Kingdom (Europe is arguably more progressive than the US in their food standards)? So glad you asked - let's compare:

Vegan Oat Milk Pumpkin Spice Latte, Venti size
Calories: 419 kcal
Sugar: 47 g
Fiber: 12 g
Protein: 4.0 g

Vegan Almond Milk Pumpkin Spice Latte, Venti size
Calories: 318 kcal
Sugars: 43 g
Fiber: 6.1 g
Protein: 2.4 g

Vegan Coconut Milk Pumpkin Spice Latte, Venti size
Calories: 379 kcal
Sugar: 46 g
Fiber: 9.9 g
Protein: 4 g

Vegan Soy Milk Pumpkin Spice Latte, Venti size
Calories: 370 kcal
Sugar: 45 g
Fiber: 6.7 g
Protein: 10 g

If we look at calories, sugar, protein, and fiber, you may notice a few differences compared to the US version. They are lower for all of the versions than the non-vegan version. There is noticeably more fiber in the veganized version, especially for the vegan oat milk pumpkin spice latte. Fiber is associated with increased satiety, gut health, weight loss, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (13,14).

Regardless of whether or not it’s vegan, frequent excessive consumption of processed foods may contribute to negative health effects. So can it be made healthier?

For starters, reducing the serving size, decreasing the number of flavored pumps, opting for no whipped cream and pumpkin spice sauce, and swapping for sugar-free syrups will all help reduce the number of calories and sugar.

The PSL in the US can’t be modified to be made vegan, however, you could still make it pumpkin spice inspired. Peta suggested ordering a vanilla latte with your choice of non-dairy milk, sprinkled with pumpkin spice topping (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and clove). Many non-dairy milks noticeably have fiber, like oat milk, which is important for your gut health, satiety, and risk of heart disease (13,14). 

If you're unfamiliar with various alt milks, here's a breakdown of the most popular. My intern, Nancy V., has created a downloadable nutrition guide to navigating the plant-based milks available at Starbucks. You can download that here.

Oat milk: creamy, slightly sweet taste
Coconut milk: coconut flavor, sweet, creamy
Almond milk: nutty taste, sweet taste
Soy milk: beany flavor, creamy

Lastly, for a healthier/vegan PSL you can make your own at home. The benefit of making meals at home is that you control what goes into your food. If you're not feeling adventurous other alternatives include a tea with pumpkin spice toppings, or a vegan non-dairy milk sprinkled with nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and clove. You could also add vegan creamers, sauces, and whipped cream but be mindful because this is still considered a treat. 

Image from Unsplash

Image from Unsplash

This post was co-created with Nancy V., nutrition intern. 
References (in order of appearance):

Paddon-Jones, Douglas, et al. “Protein, Weight Management, and Satiety.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 87, no. 5, May 2008, pp. 1558S–1561S., doi:10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1558s.

Hall, Kevin D., et al. “Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of AD Libitum Food Intake.” Cell Metabolism, vol. 30, no. 1, 16 May 2019, doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008.

Leaf, Alex, and Jose Antonio. “The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition - A Narrative Review.” International journal of exercise science vol. 10,8 1275-1296. 1 Dec. 2017

Jung, Chang Hee, and Min-Seon Kim. “Molecular Mechanisms of Central Leptin Resistance in Obesity.” Archives of Pharmacal Research, vol. 36, no. 2, 29 Jan. 2013, pp. 201–207., doi:10.1007/s12272-013-0020-y.

Izquierdo, Andrea G., et al. “Leptin, Obesity, and Leptin Resistance: Where Are We 25 Years Later?” Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 11, 8 Nov. 2019, p. 2704., doi:10.3390/nu11112704.

Luger, Maria, et al. “Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain in Children and Adults: A Systematic Review from 2013 to 2015 and a Comparison with Previous Studies.” Obesity Facts, vol. 10, no. 6, 14 Dec. 2017, pp. 674–693., doi:10.1159/000484566.

Malik, Vasanti S., et al. “Sugar-Sweetened Beverages, Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, and Cardiovascular Disease Risk.” Circulation, vol. 121, no. 11, 23 Mar. 2010, pp. 1356–1364., doi:10.1161/circulationaha.109.876185.

Wang, Meng, et al. “Association between Sugar‐Sweetened Beverages and Type 2 Diabetes: A Meta‐Analysis.” Journal of Diabetes Investigation, vol. 6, no. 3, 11 Dec. 2014, pp. 360–366., doi:10.1111/jdi.12309.

Weeratunga, Praveen, et al. “Per Capita Sugar Consumption and Prevalence of Diabetes Mellitus – Global and Regional Associations.” BMC Public Health, vol. 14, no. 1, 20 Feb. 2014, doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-186.

Geidl-Flueck, Bettina, et al. “Fructose- and Sucrose- but Not Glucose-Sweetened Beverages Promote Hepatic De Novo Lipogenesis: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Journal of Hepatology, vol. 75, no. 1, 21 July 2021, pp. 46–54., doi:10.1016/j.jhep.2021.02.027.

Ma, Jiantao, et al. “Sugar-Sweetened Beverage, Diet Soda, and Fatty Liver Disease in the Framingham Heart Study Cohorts.” Journal of Hepatology, vol. 63, no. 2, 5 June 2015, pp. 462–469., doi:10.1016/j.jhep.2015.03.032.

Jensen, Thomas, et al. “Fructose and Sugar: A Major Mediator of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.” Journal of Hepatology, vol. 68, no. 5, 2 Feb. 2018, pp. 1063–1075., doi:10.1016/j.jhep.2018.01.019.

Anderson, James W, et al. “Health Benefits of Dietary Fiber.” Nutrition Reviews, vol. 67, no. 4, 1 Apr. 2009, pp. 188–205., doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x.

Veronese N;Solmi M;Caruso MG;Giannelli G;Osella AR;Evangelou E;Maggi S;Fontana L;Stubbs B;Tzoulaki I; “Dietary Fiber and Health Outcomes: An Umbrella Review of Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Mar. 2018,