How nice is pumpkin spice?

Tasty, sure – but watch out for the sugar, fat and carbohydrates.

Health experts say holiday-season drinks can be much more than you want.

By Leesa Putt

Special to The Knightly News

For coffee lovers everywhere, reaching for a pumpkin-flavored drink from your favorite coffee shop is a rite of passage in the cooler months. But before indulging in that coveted beverage, you may want to know the amount of sugar and calories lurking inside.

Be careful. Holiday specialty coffees and other “treat” drinks can be an unwanted meal in a cup.
Photo illustration by Michael Lear-Olimpi

The seasonal dessert-like drinks, initially introduced by Starbucks in 2003, have already returned to Starbucks as well as to Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and independent coffee shops. Most nutrition experts warn about the drinks’ significant amount of calories and sugar.

Rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, pumpkin is incredibly wholesome. However, coffee drinks made with pumpkin-flavored syrups are loaded with sugar and syrup, and do not have the same benefits as fresh pumpkin.

According to nutritional data on Dunkin’ Donuts’ website, a large pumpkin swirl frozen coffee with cream has 181 grams of sugar and 1,160 calories. That far exceeds the American Heart Association’s daily recommendation to consume 25 grams of sugar or less. For comparison, this one beverage contains the same amount of sugar as from 14 to 17 glazed donuts from at least two major “doughnut shop” outlets.

McDonald’s also offers a pumpkin spice latte that contains 380 calories, 54 grams of sugar and 12 grams of fat. This one beverage has almost 100 more calories, 47 more grams of sugar and 1gram more of fat than ordering a cheeseburger from the McDonald’s menu. An entire Happy Meal (minus the drink choice) has the same amount of calories and 45 grams less sugar.

“What bothers me is that people drink this without a second thought,” said Jacki Dalsimer, health coach and nutritionist for MacDonald Center for Prevention and Education. “These drinks are an entire meal worth of calories and a whole week full of sugar.”

Dalsimer said these drinks are far removed from a cup of coffee. Although she recommends that her clients continue drinking coffee, she warns that most specialty coffee drinks contain extra calories and unwholesome sugar levels.

Liquid calories may not fill you up

In his book, “Habits of Health,” Dr. Wayne Scott Anderson, a health expert and weight-loss practitioner, suggests that ingesting calories from a drink may not be as satisfying as eating a 250-calorie sandwich on whole wheat bread containing more wholesome fats.

“Our brains don’t always register the calories we drink in the same way as when we are eating,” Anderson wrote.

Anderson suggests that consuming calorie-laden drinks could lead to excessive caloric intake, being hungrier later and unwanted weight gain.

A fancy, frothy — and, yes, tasty, but sugar- and fat-filled — holiday coffee specialty drink from one of the popular coffee-and-confection national eateries can easily have as much sugar as 12 doughnuts. Some equal up to 17 donuts. Photo by Annie Spratt, used under open license from Unsplash,

A study from concluded the rush of sugar from liquid calories is unhealthy for our normal cognitive process. Researchers say this could lead to sugar addiction and overeating.

“There is no benefit you can get out of sugar in your diet,” Dalsimer said. “The rush you get is only temporary, and once it goes away, you’re wanting more.”

The effects of high sugar levels on your brain

According to the Texas Institute for Neurological Disorders website, a private neurological treatment facility, the brain uses energy in the form of glucose to fuel cellular activities. Consuming high-sugar beverages can lead to excess glucose in the brain, and studies have linked excess glucose consumption to memory and cognitive deficiencies.

Another reason too much sugar is harmful to the brain is that it affects certain neurotransmitters, resulting in sugar addictions. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that controls mood, behavior, learning and memory. The Texas Institute identifies drug addiction and Parkinson’s disease as just a few examples of health concerns associated with disrupted dopamine levels.

Not only is sugar harmful to the health of the brain, but it is also harmful to the overall health of the body. Too much sugar can lead to tooth decay and cavities, weight gain and an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Following the American Heart Association’s recommendation of limiting sugar intake to 25 grams of sugar or less a day is the best preventive measure to avoiding this unhealthy ingredient. 

Is cold brew healthier?

With the popularity of the pumpkin spice latte, Starbucks released a healthier version of its famous drink, the Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew. The brand advertises this beverage as just coffee and natural cream. While this looks and sounds like a better option, nutritionists aren’t so quick to praise the new seasonal cold-brew beverage.

The coffeehouse’s cold-brew coffee is combined with sweetened vanilla syrup, topped with a pumpkin-flavored cream cold foam, and finished with a dusting of pumpkin spice. The Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew does have a slightly better nutrition profile than the latte, but both are well beyond what nutrition experts think a drink should contain in calories, fat and sugar. Here’s how some of the favorites from Starbucks rank in its grande size, a 16-ounce beverage. Note that these numbers are accurate, based on a survey of Starbucks’ nutrition-information webpages, but may vary slightly, depending on ingredients used and preparation methods.

One grande pumpkin cream cold brew has:

  • 250 calories
  • 12 grams fat
  • 31 grams sugar

One grande pumpkin spice latte has:

  • 380 calories
  • 14 grams fat
  • 50 grams sugar

The cold brew may save you a few more calories than the classic and iced pumpkin spice latte, but the sugar content is still at unhealthy levels.

Keep the flavor, cut the sugar

 Seasonal drinks can contain many calories and sugar, but a few tips and tricks can help you enjoy the same flavors more wholesomely. Dalsimer spoke about how to enjoy similar flavors without a high-calorie and sugar-laden blow to your system. Some options she suggests follow:

  • Top coffee with almond or unsweetened coconut whipped cream and spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg or pumpkin pie spice.
  • Add a little canned pumpkin to your whipped cream alternative and mix it with your favorite coffee beverage. This is a great alternative for a cold-brew drink.
  • Add pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, unsweetened coconut milk or unsweetened almond milk to your favorite vanilla protein drink and coffee, if desired. When mixed in a blender with ice, the flavor is close to a frozen pumpkin latte without all the sugar and calories.
  • Froth milk, or a nondairy alternative, and top your coffee with your favorite spices.

Dalsimer said it is always possible to satiate our fall cravings and create imposters of our favorite drinks. She suggests always looking at the nutritional information before consuming any beverage, and if needed, think of alternative ways to enjoy your favorite seasonal flavors.

“I’m just waiting for this whole fad to go away,” Dalsimer said.

If you need your fix, here’s the best of the worst options

With moderation in mind, as well as the need for something cozy on your way to school or work, here are the best options when ordering alternatives for the next time you are at your favorite drive-thru.

  • Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks

How to order: Grande blonde coffee with 1 pump pumpkin sauce, 2 pumps sugar-free vanilla, 2 shots of espresso and 1 cup steamed almond milk (or about half-full of steamed skim milk).

Nutrition Facts: 95 calories, 14 grams carbs (9 grams sugar), 4 grams fat, 3 grams protein

  • Pumpkin Spice Americano at Starbucks

How to order: Grande blonde caffé Americano with 1 pump pumpkin sauce, 2 pumps sugar-free vanilla and a light splash of half & half.

Nutrition Facts: 75 calories, 12 grams carbs (7 grams sugar), 2 grams protein, 3 grams fat

  • Pumpkin Chai Tea Latte at Dunkin’

How to order: One small brewed chai tea. Add steamed skim milk, 4 Splendas and 1 pump pumpkin syrup (some locations have a sugar-free pumpkin syrup).

Nutrition Facts: 65-80 calories, 12 grams carbs (12 grams sugar), 4 grams protein

As with everything, moderation is key. And don’t worry, these alternatives are just as yummy as the real thing, without the side of guilt.

Putt is a Lebanon writer who reports on health, nutrition, wellness and psychology.

Have a comment or a story idea? Contact KnightlyEditors@CentralPenn.Edu.

Edited by media-club co-adviser and blog editor Professor Michael Lear-Olimpi.