Dunkin' Vs. Starbucks: Who Serves The Better Pumpkin Spice Latte?

If you haven't yet noticed, pumpkin spice latte season is in full swing. Although pumpkin spice (also known as pumpkin pie spice) has existed for decades, the espresso-based iteration of this autumnal delight as we know it is a relatively modern invention. In 2003, Starbucks product manager Peter Dukes found that espresso paired remarkably well with the flavors in pumpkin pie, and the rest was history. Today, numerous coffee chains serve up their own versions of the pumpkin spice latte, or PSL, though Starbucks and Dunkin' are home to some of the most popular pumpkin beverages on the market.

Each coffee house's pumpkin spice latte recipe is a little different, but they generally incorporate the same ingredients: espresso, pumpkin spiced sauce or syrup, milk, and optional toppings like whipped cream, syrup, and an extra dusting of spice. The Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall, and its formula has evolved quite a bit since the iconic drink's early days. Some can't get enough of the real pumpkin extract found in the modern-day Starbucks PSL recipe, while others remain loyal to Dunkin's traditional pumpkin spiced brew. In order to find out which coffee giant serves the best pumpkin spice latte of the season, we tested several orders from each chain — and here's what we discovered.

What's inside each pumpkin spice latte

Of course, Dunkin' and Starbucks have slightly different approaches when it comes to preparing this classic fall beverage. For comparison, we examined what went into a pumpkin spice latte made with whole milk at either chain.

At Dunkin', a Pumpkin Spice Signature Latte starts with brewed espresso coffee, followed by pumpkin-flavored swirl syrup. Inside the pumpkin-flavored syrup is a mixture of sweetened, condensed nonfat milk, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and brown sugar — among other additives and preservatives. According to Dunkin', the chain's PSL also contains caramel-flavored syrup made with similar components. And if you opt for whipped cream on your Dunkin' Pumpkin Spice Latte, it, too, will feature the presence of high fructose corn syrup.

Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte recipe is a far cry from its competitor. Like Dunkin', its drink begins with brewed espresso, but its pumpkin flavoring is strikingly different. Starbucks' pumpkin spice sauce is made with sugar, condensed skim milk, pumpkin puree, and fruit and vegetable juices for color. It also includes potassium sorbate, a preservative, but it does not feature disodium phosphate, a flavor enhancer found in Dunkin's pumpkin syrup. Both its whipped cream and vanilla syrup are made with sugar instead of corn syrup, and the pumpkin spice topping consists of natural spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and clove.

Cost and availability

At Dunkin', the Pumpkin Spice Signature Latte is available from August 16 until October 31 as part of the chain's autumn menu, while Starbucks' gets a slightly later start, arriving on August 24. But whether you treat yourself to the occasional PSL or grab one daily throughout the season, the cost of this specialty drink can add up over time.

Fortunately for fans of Dunkin's Pumpkin Spice Signature Latte, the chain's fall beverage is significantly more affordable than Starbucks'. A small Pumpkin Spice Latte made with regular milk at Dunkin' will set you back $4.29 at the time of writing, though prices may vary by location. Adding non-dairy milk, such as oat, almond, or coconut milk, is an additional 0.50 cent charge. After tax, our non-dairy Dunkin' pumpkin spice latte cost us $5.17.

There's a reason why many consider Starbucks an occasional treat — at $5.25, a "tall" (small) dairy milk-based PSL is nearly a dollar more than Dunkin's. Add in a non-dairy milk option, like coconut, and the total climbs to $5.95. Further, you'll pay even more for your pumpkin fix at metropolitan locations for both chains, though Starbucks is considerably pricier in this regard. In midtown Manhattan, for example, an original, tall Starbucks PSL order is $6.75 at the time of writing, while Dunkin's is $4.55.

Nutritional information

Now, let's take a look at how the two pumpkin spice beverages stack up from a nutritional standpoint. Considering their vastly different ingredient lists, we expected Starbucks' version of the PSL to be healthier — but as it turns out, they're quite similar.

A small pumpkin spice latte from Dunkin' Donuts contains 300 calories, with most of its energy coming from 42 grams of carbohydrates. There are 38 grams of sugars and 25 of those are in the form of added sugars, like high fructose corn syrup. In terms of fat content, the Dunkin' PSL has 11 grams total, and six of these grams are considered saturated. Interestingly, the traditional PSL also contains 8 grams of protein, 416 milligrams of potassium, and 296 milligrams of calcium. Dunkin' does not provide official stats for its latte's caffeine content, but the chain's espresso blend contains 118 milligrams of caffeine per shot; a small Dunkin' latte contains one shot of espresso.

Over at Starbucks, a tall, whole milk pumpkin spice latte also contains approximately 300 calories. Its fat content is slightly higher at 12 grams total, with seven being saturated. Also worth noting is that Dunkin's version of the drink has 35 milligrams of cholesterol, whereas Starbucks' contains 40 milligrams. To our surprise, both drinks have the exact same amount of sugar at 38 grams per small-sized cup. Additionally, Starbucks' PSL features 11 grams of protein, two more grams than Dunkin's, and roughly 75 milligrams of caffeine.

Taste: Dunkin' Donuts Pumpkin Spice Signature Latte

One thing that we noticed about ordering from both Dunkin' and Starbucks was that no two drinks were the same. Although we didn't specify any customization criteria aside from dairy-free milk, we received very different lattes during each visit. Our first Dunkin' Pumpkin Spice Signature Latte of the season was exactly what we'd hoped for — extra foam, just the right amount of sweetness, and a healthy amount of pumpkin spice flavor. Yet subsequent Dunkin' lattes simply didn't live up to its greatness. While the first Dunkin' PSL filled its cup to the brim, the next two seemed a bit short. Foam and whipped cream can collapse due to heat, but some of our pumpkin spice lattes looked downright scanty.

Some Dunkin' pumpkin spice lattes arrived with no toppings to speak of, while others featured whipped cream — and one even included a dash of cinnamon sugar. While the cinnamon sugar looked pleasant enough, its granular texture was a bit too much to take in on the first sip. Considering Dunkin's PSL contains the same amount of sugar as Starbucks' iteration, we didn't notice much difference in sweetness between the two drinks. That said, Dunkin's beverage was more espresso-forward and reminded us of a homemade coffee with a dash of pumpkin-flavored creamer. It's not to say that Dunkin's PSL was unenjoyable, but two out of three times we tried it, it didn't taste much different than an ordinary flavored latte.

Taste: Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte

Regrettably, inconsistency seemed to be an issue at Starbucks, too. Some pumpkin spice lattes were more colorful and complex, while others seemed toned down, the result of excess milk or whipped cream. It's impossible not to notice the vivid orange of Starbucks' latte once you break through its foam layer. That's because, in 2015, the chain decided to drop its caramel coloring and add real pumpkin to its sauce recipe, hence its authentic autumnal hue. Naturally, this also extends to the overall taste of the drink. The pumpkin flavor isn't particularly strong, but you can pick up on sweet, squash-like undertones if you're looking for them.

The most prominent feature of Starbucks' pumpkin spice latte is the spice blend, a combination of nutmeg, clove, ginger, and cinnamon. Most of what we tasted was cinnamon and nutmeg, and the intensity of these flavors varied from latte to latte. At times, the drink had a slightly bitter aftertaste, not unlike a burnt marshmallow, which we'd attribute to the clove component. The best Starbucks pumpkin spice latte that we tried had a large dollop of whipped cream, a sprinkle of spice, and a balanced ratio of pumpkin spice sauce and espresso to milk.

The verdict

Although each drink we ordered was a little different than the last, we determined that Starbucks served the best overall pumpkin spice latte. Where Dunkin's pumpkin spice latte could come off as syrupy at times, Starbucks proved more well-rounded. Starbucks' natural pumpkin flavor and spice blend worked in its favor, mellowing the drink's sweetness and resulting in a pleasant, smooth taste. We also loved Starbucks' presentation. Although their prices may not be quite as attractive as Dunkin's, we noticed that Starbucks' pumpkin spice lattes were more artful. Plus, Starbucks offered generous servings, filling our cups each time we visited, while Dunkin' only succeeded at this task one out of three times.

Still, we wouldn't discount Dunkin's pumpkin spice latte entirely. Starbucks' PSL was more of a treat, thanks to its refined flavors and appearance, but there were elements of Dunkin's pumpkin spice latte that we found equally as endearing. If you're looking for a latte with more pronounced espresso flavor — and caffeine content — you may be more drawn to Dunkin's take on the iconic beverage. It would be nice if Dunkin' used real sugar in its pumpkin spice mix instead of corn syrup, as Starbucks does, but there's something comforting about the familiar taste of a flavored drink from Dunkin'. It may not be quite as elegant as Starbucks' version, but Dunkin's Pumpkin Spice Signature Latte is a notable runner-up.