With pumpkin spice frenzy in full swing, you may find yourself reading over pumpkin spice latte ingredient lists and wondering what it all means.
I’m not here to rain on your pumpkin spice parade. In fact, the right pumpkin spice latte recipe can serve as an incredibly delicious, energizing, and even healthy drink. The problem is you won’t find this at most coffee shops and convenience stores around the country. And if you’re not doing it right, these seasonal pumpkin spice splurges could be doing a real number on your liver and digestive tract.
Starbucks has come under a lot of fire in the media for its pumpkin spice ingredient choices. It’s important to note that the company did take steps to clean up its ingredients list. It now contains real pumpkin puree and uses vegetable and fruit juice for color.
But an obvious remaining concern is the insane levels of added sugars in these drinks. For instance, a 16-ounce pumpkin spice latte made from 2 percent milk and topped with whipped cream from Starbucks contains 50 grams of sugar. At a time when we desperately need to reduce sugar consumption, consider this: That one 16-ounce drink contains about all of the added sugars an adult should consume in an entire day.
With out-of-control added sugars like this, it’s not hard to see why children, for instance, are averaging 32 teaspoons of sugar a day. In fact, modern-day diseases like nonalcoholic fatty liver disease are now traced back to ingesting too much sugar.
But that’s not even the No. 1 pumpkin spiced latte ingredient I want to warn you about.
Ingredient Public Enemy No. 1
Carrageenan. That’s an ingredient in many pumpkin spice lattes that makes me pause. Often marketed as a “natural” ingredient derived from seaweed, the research suggests we may want to take a closer look.
So what is carrageenan? It is an additive extracted from red edible seaweeds and widely used in the food industry for gelling, thickening, and stabilizing foods and drinks. It’s very popular for use in dairy and dairy replacement products for its strong ability to bind food proteins. It’s banned in infant formula in the European Union but is used freely in products in the U.S., including organic foods and drinks.
Dairy, almond, coconut, and soy milk manufacturers also use carrageenan because it creates a fatty mouthfeel in low-fat or nonfat products.
The problem? Carrageenan is an extremely reliable inflammatory agent and carcinogen. In fact, it’s so inflammatory that researchers often use it to study the molecular signals involved in cancer and anti-inflammatory drugs. More than 3,800 studies show carrageenan causes inflammation.
In April 2016, the Cornucopia Institute published summary research exposing the industry’s withheld data that shows even food-grade carrageenan—the kind the industry for decades proclaimed as safe—contained the carcinogenic contaminant poligeenan.
Aside from cancer-causing properties, studies show carrageenan causes GI inflammation and a higher risk of intestinal lesions, ulcerations, and even malignant tumors. Scientists found carrageenan triggers an immune reaction that causes an inflammatory response in the gastrointestinal system.
This ingredient hides out in the whipped cream in Starbucks’ pumpkin spice lattes. I recommend avoiding these drinks altogether, mainly because of excessive sugar, but if you do grab a small for a treat here and there, be sure to say “no whipped cream.”
And while Starbucks is in a lot of hot water over its pumpkin spice latte ingredient list, including the use of carrageenan, other coffee giants aren’t serving up completely benevolent beverages, either.
For instance, Dunkin’ Donuts’ pumpkin spice products contain caramel coloring. This food dye is often created by heating a sugar compound with ammonium compounds, acids, or alkalis. When produced with ammonia, the contaminants 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole are produced. The World Health Organization classifies these compounds as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Dunkin’ Donuts also uses high fructose corn syrup in its pumpkin spice drinks.
A Cleaner Pumpkin Spice Latte Ingredient List
The coffee base in pumpkin latte drinks is a health food rock star. What we know of coffee nutrition facts through emerging research links coffee to these benefits:
- Protection against neurodegenerative diseases
- Improved heart health
- Cancer protection
- Diabetes protection
- Ability to fight depression
- Increased energy and concentration
- Better physical performance
- Improved asthma control
- Lower risk of select gastrointestinal diseases
But this do-good ingredient is tarnished by excessive sugar and often unnecessary ingredients like fake flavors and carrageenan (depending on the company producing the drink, the bad actor ingredients vary).
If you want to enjoy an autumn treat teeming with brain-benefiting healthy fats, free radical-fighting spices, and digestion-friendly coffee (and without all of the nonsense ingredients), try this recipe. (Check out this buying guide to source carrageenan-free coconut milk.)
Final Thoughts on Pumpkin Spice Latte Ingredient
An honest to goodness pumpkin spice latte can be a wonderful thing, but sadly, you’re going to probably have to take matters into your own hands. Most commercial franchises are using questionable or outright harmful ingredients. Carrageenan is an unnecessary ingredient linked to digestive inflammation and disease. Save money and your health by using my recipe to create your own antioxidant-packed pumpkin spice latte at home, sans all the excess sugar and industrial ingredients.
Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, and author with a passion to help people get well using food as medicine. He recently authored “Eat Dirt” and “Gut Repair Cookbook,” and he operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites at DrAxe.com