Love PSLs? Nutritionist-approved swaps for your favorite fall treats

The traditional treats of autumn are tempting, but often loaded with sugar. With a few simple swaps, you can savor and sip healthier this season.
Caramel apples
Coating apples in a thick layer of sugary caramel — while tasty — counters the healthfulness of eating apples.Getty Images stock

When the weather turns chilly and you have the fall feels, a pumpkin spiced latte (PSL) from Starbucks or a caramel apple can bring a sense of comfort and nostalgia. But these fall classics — like many others — are loaded with added sugars.

The American Heart Association recommends women stay below 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day and men stay below 9 teaspoons. Consistently eating above this recommended limit has been linked with a number of health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and mood disorders. To reel in your sugar habit while still enjoying fall’s flavors, try these healthier alternatives.

1. Swap pumpkin spice latte for a healthier pumpkin latte

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, CSSD, a performance dietitian based in Los Angeles, offers a recipe for a healthier PSL: In a saucepan over low heat, combine 2 tablespoons canned pumpkin, 1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice, a pinch of sea salt, 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract and 1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk, stirring until warmed and fragrant, about three minutes. Transfer the pumpkin mixture to a blender and add 1/2 cup hot, brewed coffee, 2 teaspoons maple syrup and 1 tablespoon unsweetened almond butter. Blend until frothy.

According to the nutritional information on the Starbucks website, a grande PSL has more sugar than coffee. A traditional latte contains 18 grams of natural sugar from milk, while a PSL has 50 grams of sugar so if it has the same amount of milk, that means it has 32 grams of added sugar, or about 8 teaspoons. Sass’s healthier version has 2 teaspoons, which puts you in a much healthier added sugar zone.

2. Swap a slice of pumpkin bread for pumpkin overnight oats.

You can certainly make a healthier pumpkin loaf by swapping whole grain flour for white flour. You can probably lower the sugar, too. But an easier way to get those flavors you crave in a morning meal or anytime snack is to make overnight oats by combining 1/2 cup each oats and unsweetened almond milk with 2 tablespoons pureed pumpkin, 1 teaspoon chia seeds, 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice, and 1 teaspoon maple syrup, mixing well and covering overnight. When you’re ready to eat the oats, enjoy them cool or warmed in the microwave. You can also add chopped walnuts or pecans.

A serving has tons of pumpkin-y flavor yet just 1 teaspoon of added sugar (rather than about 10 teaspoons, which is what’s in an average slice of pumpkin bread) and packs in a full day’s worth of immune-supporting vitamin A along with 7 grams of fiber to keep you full.

3. Swap apple cider donuts for cinnamon-sugar snack balls

Though they’re often found at the farmers’ market, apple cider donuts don’t deserve the health halo of typical farmers’ market fare. They pack approximately 20 grams, or about 5 teaspoons, of added sugar. Swap the donut for some cinnamon-sugar snack balls and you’ll get similar flavors in a treat made with healthful ingredients and just a teaspoon of added sugar.

Here’s how to make them: In a blender, blend 1/4 cup oats until they reach a flour-like consistency. Then add 2 tablespoons almond butter, 1/2 teaspoon maple syrup and 1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon and vanilla extract. Blend until a crumbly dough forms. Pour the mixture into a bowl and mix with 1 tablespoon warm water. Using a melon baller or small cookie scoop, scoop out the mixture onto a plate or tray lined with parchment paper. Then, one by one, roll the balls in a mixture of 1 teaspoon sugar plus 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. The sugary coating hits your taste buds first, tricking them into thinking these are sweeter than they are. The mixture makes about two servings.

4. Swap caramel apples for apples smeared in a caramel-ish spread

On their own, apples are a wholesome snack with more than 4 grams of fiber, including a type that feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Apples also contain a class of antioxidants that promote a healthy heart and vascular system. But coating them in a thick layer of sugary caramel — while tasty — counters the healthfulness of eating apples. You can get the same caramel-like vibes by combining 5 dates with 1 tablespoon hot water and 1 teaspoon peanut butter. Blend in a bowl using an immersion blender (or a regular blender), gradually adding more hot water if needed. When your mixture is smooth, cut an apple into quarters and spread the mixture over your apple slices. Enjoy as is or press in toppings like chopped nuts or unsweetened coconut flakes. You’ll have enough spread for two to three apples.

5. Swap caramel popcorn for popcorn trail mix

Unflavored popcorn is an antioxidant-rich snack. Because popcorn is airy, it’s also a lighter choice than many other crunchy snacks, like chips. But the caramel coating detracts from popcorn’s healthfulness and some brands have more sugar than popcorn, with 4 1/2 teaspoons per 2/3 cup. And who wants to eat less than a cup? You can swap this sugary concoction for a popcorn trail mix made with 2 cups popcorn, 1 tablespoon peanuts and 2 teaspoons white chocolate chips. With some protein and fiber, this snack provides steady energy, and the chips disperse so you get some sweetness in every bite without overdoing the sugar; it contains just 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar from the chocolate chips.

6. Swap maple sugar candy for candied nuts

Rather than knocking down 10 teaspoons of pure sugar, go for some candied nuts instead. The fiber, protein and fat in nuts will slow down the absorption of sugar, therefore providing even more energy. Plus, toasting nuts brings out a sweet flavor so you can get away with using a small amount of added sugar — in this case, just a teaspoon per serving. Heat 2 teaspoons coconut oil in a small skillet over medium heat and add 1/2 cup walnuts, 2 teaspoons maple syrup and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon. Stir to coat the nuts and continue to stir frequently for about five minutes. Allow to cool and enjoy. You’ll get two servings out of this recipe so double up if you want more.