Are pumpkin lattes gluten free?

Starbucks-Pumpkin-Spice-LattePumpkin is popping up everywhere you look as we head into the time of year when it seems the perfect flavor for the season.

And that means our attention and our taste buds are turning to pumpkin spice lattes.

On the gluten-free diet, these aromatic drinks present challenges because none of the three big national chains that brew the lattes  will say their concoctions are safe.

Starbucks, the category leader, has sold 200 million pumpkin lattes in a decade. A company spokesperson said the drink does not contain any ingredients intentionally made with gluten. However, she notes that ingredients might be made on equipment that also processes products that do contain gluten. In addition, Starbucks does not claim any of its beverages are gluten free because the company uses shared equipment and handles gluten in its stores.

Although the pumpkin spice sauce and pumpkin spice topping are not made with gluten-containing ingredients, they are are not certified gluten free, according to the spokesperson. “It is our company policy to go out for third party certification should we wish to claim gluten-free on any of our products,” she said.

Starbucks has taken this position for a few years now, after a short-lived period of trying to meet gluten-free needs, most notably by introducing and quickly pulling a gluten-free orange cake. I’ve always found this turn-around and Starbucks’ statements confusing. In other countries, the company is much better at serving its gluten-free customers. In the United Kingdom, for example, you can find gluten-free sandwiches in the refrigerator case.

But what to do about the latte? Some gluten-free consumers ask the barista to clean out the containers used to make the drink and feel safer about the cross-contamination issues. Others would never give in to the latte urge no matter how strong it gets as fall settles in. It can be a matter of concern about some gluten content or a philosophical stand against a policy that’s gluten insensitive – or both.

McDonald’s started stirring its spoon in the pumpkin latte business this year, too.  Butmcdonalds-McCaf-Pumpkin-Spice-Latte-Small getting an answer about its gluten-free status is not easy. The company did not respond to our request for information.

While McDonald’s no longer has a list of gluten-free menu items, it does put ingredients and major allergens, including wheat, on its website. The pumpkin latte is made with milk, espresso and pumpkin spice flavored syrup. It does not contain wheat and none of the ingredients appear to come from gluten sources. Caramel color is used in the syrup, but it is most often made from corn because ingredient makers say corn results in the best product. The syrup also contains natural and artificial flavors. Our research has shown that flavors usually don’t contain gluten, but barley is sometimes used. Typically it’s labeled as malt flavoring, malt extract or barley malt extract and is easy to find, but it is possible a flavor can contain barley and not say so.

You’ll also find a pumpkin spice latte at Dunkin’ Donuts. It does not contain ingredients made Pumpkin Beverage Line Horizontal Lifestyle from wheat or barley, according to Michelle King, director of global public relations. She says that many Dunkin’ Donuts  drinks are made without gluten, but cross-contamination both in the restaurant and at production facilities is possible. As a result the company does not guarantee that any beverage is gluten free, King says.

(As a side note, Dunkin’ Donuts recently introduced several gluten-free bakery items nationwide. They are made in a dedicated gluten-free facility and sold individually packaged to prevent cross-contamination in stores.)

The bottom line is that you won’t get a gluten-free guarantee from these  three nationwide chains regarding the pumpkin latte.  Cross-contamination seems to be the biggest issue, with both Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts saying none of the ingredients are made from gluten and it’s likely, though not guaranteed, the same is true of McDonald’s.