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The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.
Hello. My name is Mariana, and it’s been two years since my last Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks.
Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte is considered to be the official drink of fall. I have nothing against a nice hot coffee, flavored with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg…but that’s not what you’re getting when you buy a Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks. Instead, you’re getting: condensed milk, sweetened condensed milk, natural and artificial flavors, food coloring, potassium sorbate (preservative), annatto (the orange color), caramel coloring (a known carcinogen). And sugar. Lots of sugar. I have two main frustrations with the Pumpkin Spice Latte:
1. Starbucks uses a menagerie of chemicals to replicate the taste and look of all-natural, delicious spices. Why? For the convenience of being able to serve identical flavor profiles across the country. For the convenience of having a quick, easily dispensable product. For convenience, they are choosing chemicals and food dyes to the detriment of our health. The ingredients listed in the pumpkin spice latte do not contain pumpkin, cinnamon, cloves, or nutmeg, just chemicals to replicate those flavors.
2. The abhorrently high sugar content. A Grande (16 oz.) Pumpkin Spice Latte smuggles 49 grams of sugar into your body. That’s equal to about 12 teaspoons, or ¼ cup of sugar.
What makes the Pumpkin Spice Latte so loveable? Results from some highly scientific research (Facebook) show that everyone loves the flavor. Starbucks describes their flavor profile as: cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. All natural, delicious spices. Surely, Starbucks can find a way to prepare a yummy pumpkin spice latte using real ingredients, no chemicals, and less sugar. I really hope they do. However, until Starbucks improves their product, it’s up to us. Don’t give up your favorite drink, just lose the chemicals.
So, that’s what we’re going to explore today. There are lots of ways we could “clean up” this beloved beverage, but I’m going to focus on two key points: chemicals and sugar. If you have any more tips or substitutions to share, I’d love to hear them! Feel free to comment with even more great ideas.
There are quite a few copycat Pumpkin Spice Latte recipes out there. I’ve tried many of them; I didn’t LOVE any of them. To make your own spiced latte, there are two main ways to get the flavor: make a spiced syrup base to add to any latte (or coffee/milk combo), or make a spiced milk/cream base and just add coffee. Each method has its own benefits and drawbacks, and one may work better for you than another. Share your own pumpkin spice hack in the comments!
DIY Pumpkin Spice Syrup- this option is fantastic for anyone choosing to avoid dairy. I designed this based on a traditional, simple syrup recipe. The syrup will keep for months in the fridge, and you only use 1-2 spoonfuls per coffee.
-½ cup organic sugar or coconut palm sugar
-1 Tablespoon pumpkin pie spice (recipe below)
-1 teaspoon organic vanilla extract
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and the water. Bring to a boil and instantly reduce the heat. Simmer until all the sugar has dissolved. The syrup will have thickened slightly. Remove from heat. Add remainder of ingredients and stir until combined. You should end up with a brown-colored syrup. Store in a glass container. Keeps in the fridge for up to 4 months.
To make the latte, heat 4-6 ounces of milk and froth, if desired. Add 1-2 Tablespoons of your homemade syrup and stir to combine. Add 1 shot of espresso (or 2+ ounces super-strong coffee). Make it extra fancy, and top it with whipped cream and dust with pumpkin pie spice.
Troubleshooting: if your “syrup” ends up more like a “caramel”, you cooked it a little too long, removing too much water. If your syrup starts crystallizing, you cooked it too long, removing too much water. Not a big deal. You can bring the syrup back up to heat and work in some more water to fix the consistency.
DIY Pumpkin Spice Pitcher- this recipe includes the milk and makes a pitcher full of pumpkin spice latte, just add coffee. If you like to have a latte ready to go, or only have a few minutes to throw something together, this is a great option. The pitcher will keep for about a week, if you don’t drink it all first…
-2 cups milk
-½ cup cream
-¼ cup organic sugar or coconut palm sugar
-¼ cup pure maple syrup
-2 tablespoons pumpkin pie spice mix (recipe below)
-1 tablespoon organic vanilla extract
*Note- the best way to get the flavor out of spices is to heat them with a fat. For that reason, I have written the first step. If you don’t want to do any cooking, you can skip this and just go straight to the blender, but the mix will need a little time to dissolve the sugar.
In a small saucepan, combine the cream, spices, and sugar. Heat gently over medium heat until the cream begins to scald (slight vapor, no bubbles). Reduce heat and stir occasionally until all the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat. Add the maple syrup and vanilla extract. It should smell like heaven at this point.
In a blender, add 2 cups milk + spiced cream and blend until combined. Taste. Adjust spices and sweetness, if desired. Store in refrigerator for up to 7 days.
To make the latte, heat 4-6 ounces of spiced milk mixture and add 1 shot of espresso or 2+ ounces super-strong coffee. Make it extra fancy, and top it with whipped cream and dust with pumpkin pie spice.
DIY Pumpkin Spiced Cream- Judging by Starbuck’s ingredients list, they do a combo of the two recipes above, creating a concentrated syrup based with dairy already added. I decided to give this a try and ended up with a really tasty latte.
-½ cup organic sugar or coconut palm sugar
-½ cup water
-¼ cup heavy cream
-2 tablespoons butter
-1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice (recipe below)
-1 teaspoon organic vanilla extract
In a small saucepan, combine sugar, water, cream, butter, and spices. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat. Simmer until the sugar has dissolved and syrup has thickened slightly. Remove from heat, add vanilla extract. Let cool before storing in a glass container. Refrigerate for up to one month.
To make the latte, heat 4-6 ounces of milk and froth, if desired. Add 1-2 spoonfuls of spiced cream and stir to combine. Add 1 shot espresso or 2 ounces super-strong coffee. Make it extra fancy, and top it with whipped cream and dust with pumpkin pie spice.
Pumpkin Pie Spice Mix – this is the heart and soul of the pumpkin spice latte. You can buy pumpkin pie spice at the store, but I like to make my own blend. It’s so much easier to keep a few basic, staple spices on hand than an array of spice blends, which is what pumpkin pie spice is. It’s also nice to be able to tweak the blend to your personal tastes or sensitivities. Here’s the blend I’ve been using lately:
-1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
-1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
-1 teaspoon ground ginger
-½ teaspoon ground cloves
-1 small pinch of ground allspice
*You can also personalize your blend by adding a small pinch of ground anise or cardamom.
Combine and store in an airtight container. Makes about 8 teaspoons.
A Truly Healthy Pumpkin Spice Latte
Sure. This drink comes out once a year. If this is your only vice, and you only enjoy a few a year, it’s not going to do you in. But…what if you could enjoy it daily? Here are some substitutions to help make the pumpkin spice latte healthful. It’s not going to taste just like the Starbucks version, but it does taste pretty darn good.
Here are the changes I made:
-Organic, pasture-raised raw dairy in place of conventional dairy – homemade coconut or almond milk are also yummy choices
-Stevia/Xylitol blend in place of sugar – this lowers the glycemic impact immensely. Some people love stevia and substitute it everywhere. Personally, I can’t do stevia in my coffee.
-A spoonful of coconut oil – this medium-chain fatty acid has more health benefits than I can comprehend. Adding this healthy fat also lowers the glycemic impact, keeping your blood sugar levels stable.
-Organic, bird-friendly coffee in place of conventional coffee – reduces the toxic load from pesticides and fumigation
-Swiss-water decaf process in place of conventional, chemical decaffeination
-Organic spices – because, if you’re going through all this trouble, why not?
Using quality, organic ingredients where it counts (dairy) will have the biggest impact. So spend your money where it matters. For my low-sugar version at home, I’m making the DIY Pumpkin Spice Syrup recipe above and substituting xylitol for sugar.
If you’ve read through the recipes, you’ve probably noticed…there’s no pumpkin. Yes, you can add pumpkin puree to these recipes, but I think it’s really unnecessary. The pumpkin will add a bit of orange color, but it doesn’t add much flavor. Personally, I save the pumpkin puree for muffins or pancakes and keep it out of my coffee. If you really want a bit of orange color to your drink, try a teeny-tiny pinch of turmeric. I found that using turmeric gave a great color, but I did have to add a little extra vanilla to neutralize the flavor. Totally optional.
Don’t have an espresso machine at home. No problem! You can still make a fantastic cup of coffee. If you really want that strong, bold espresso flavor, you won’t get it from the drip coffee maker. The good news is you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on an espresso machine. For less than $30, you can buy a stove-top espresso pot. Used for decades, the stove top espresso pot, or Moka Express, has been brewing some of the best coffee in the world. If you haven’t used one before, give it a try. They’re super simple and give fantastic results. Just add water to the bottom container, add coffee grounds to the little basket, seal the lid on, and put it on the stove (med to med-high heat) until espresso comes out. Great espresso in less than 10 minutes for the cost of 6 lattes.
A Note About Sugar
I kept sugar in these recipes, but I did improve the Spice: Sugar ratio. If your taste buds are accustomed to the store-bought latte, you might not find these recipes sweet enough for your tastes. Afterall, they don’t even come close to the 49 grams of sugar that Starbucks is packing. In addition to the improved ratio, I also chose sugars with lower glycemic indexes.
-Standard table sugar has a glycemic index (GI) of 80.
-Organic sugar has a glycemic index of 47…almost half of regular white sugar!
-Coconut palm sugar has a GI of 35.
-Xylitol has a GI of 7. (This is an all-natural sweetener derived from the birch tree. -Make sure you don’t buy the corn version, which is genetically modified.)
-Stevia has a GI of 0-1.
I’ve found that organic sugar, coconut palm sugar, and xylitol all act very similar, chemically, to white sugar. When making syrups, that similar chemistry will help create a good final product and proper syrup. Healthwise, stevia is a fantastic choice, but it won’t make a syrup. If you want to cut the total calories or glycemic index, try making the Pumpkin Spice Pitcher Recipe (above) and swapping the sugar for stevia.
Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte is a limited availability, seasonal drink. Although the flavors all taste natural, it’s actually a chemical trick. Tell Starbuck’s you’d rather spend your $5/per latte on a quality product made from real ingredients. Tell them it’s time to go all-natural. If you LOVE the Pumpkin Spice Latte and enjoy it often, you might want to consider a healthier alternative. Nobody wants to spend good money on chemically-enhanced foods. For a fraction of the cost, you can easily make a delicious, real-food alternative to the chemically-flavored one. Saving money and benefiting from a healthier product? Sounds great to me!