To some, the Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) from Starbucks is like the millennial scarlet letter, only meant to identify and humiliate the basics who actually enjoy the taste. And to others, drinking a PSL is not a shameful act. The thing is, no food should be demonized, or labeled "good" or "bad," because that mentality leads us to believe that we should feel "guilty" for eating certain foods. Still, PSLs are polarizing for reasons we can't explain.
But regardless of which camp you're in, you may be one of those people who notices that after drinking a PSL you feel a little bit bad. Not remorseful, but just ill. Your stomach might ache, maybe you get the chills, and then you have to go to the bathroom ASAP. (An informal poll tells me that this is pretty common.) It might feel as if your stomach is punishing you for drinking a PSL, but in reality it's probably just the ingredients going to town.
What's in a PSL besides pumpkin, spice, and espresso you ask? Lots of stuff. According to Starbucks' website, the first ingredient is milk, which makes sense since it's a latte. You have a choice of 2% milk, almond milk, coconut milk, soy milk, or skim milk. If you're among the 65% of the human population who are lactose intolerant, then you might opt for a dairy-free option because the milk alone could lead to abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, nausea, and diarrhea.
But then there's the sauce: The Pumpkin Spice Sauce is what baristas pump into PSLs to give them their signature flavor. It's made from sugar, condensed skim milk, pumpkin puree, a little "fruit and vegetable juice for color," annatto (a food dye), salt, and potassium sorbate (a food preservative). For some people who have sensitive stomachs, this could be a cocktail of triggers.
Condensed milk, which is just concentrated milk, contains about 3 grams of lactose per half-cup. If you are lactose intolerant, you'll still be getting a little bit of dairy from the sauce, even if you order your PSL with a dairy-free milk. (A Starbucks representative tells us that you can order PSLs with Pumpkin Spice topping instead of the sauce if you can't have dairy. It's just cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and clove, and it still provides the "taste of fall," they say.) Plus, condensed milk often contains added sugar to enhance the flavor, so condensed milk ends up being 40-45% sugar.
Although Starbucks lists "sugar" as an ingredient for the sauce, even excessive amounts of plain and naturally-occurring sugars could mess with your stomach. A 16-ounce grande PSL contains 50 grams of sugar, which is a lot of added sugar for a drink. "Excess sugar can lead to discomfort, bloating, and gas in your digestive tract," says Torey Armul, MS, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Finally, there's the shot of espresso. Coffee "increases gut motility," or makes your bowels move faster than usual, which is why you may need to run to the bathroom shortly after finishing any coffee drink, including your PSL. The cherry on top of all that, is that PSLs are made with whipped cream, which often contains an additive alleged to cause cramps, gas, and bloating, called carrageenan. "[Carrageenan] is most likely safe in the amounts that most people digest [it], but [it's] yet another reason to watch how often you're drinking these beverages," Armul says. "Moderation is important."
Obviously, we consume foods and beverages for a number of reasons, one of which is because we like the flavors of them. So if you like the taste of PSLs, and can tolerate the ingredients, then you should go for it. But if you're one of those people who knows that one or all of these ingredients — sugar, lactose, coffee, or carrageenan — can cause your stomach rumble, you might want to think twice, or at least have easy access to a bathroom, before ordering your next PSL.