Is There Actually Pumpkin in Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte?

By Raquel W. ’21

It’s fall, and all die hard Starbucks lovers know what this means-it’s PSL season. The pumpkin spice latte is a fall festive drink made of milk, pumpkin spice sauce (a mixture of mainly sugar, condensed skim milk, pumpkin puree and bit of natural coloring) and espresso, topped with whipped cream and a blend of spices (including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and clover). Part of its attraction could be due to its limited time offer, as it is only usually only seen from late August to early September until around December. It has been estimated that 350 million of these lattes have been sold since their release in 2003. This holiday season, the PSL was released on August 28th, its earliest official launch yet. Some people are absolutely obsessed with this drink, seeing it as a defining characteristic of the fall season and going as far as to follow its very own twitter account, @TheRealPSL, created on August 4th, 2014. However, others do not see the hype surrounding this sugary drink and view it as a key part of the definition of the word “basic.” Before you take a stance, though, let’s look at the history of this phenomenon.

A man named Peter Dukes, the director of espresso Americas for Starbucks led the PSL to its fame and glory of today. According to the Starbucks Newsroom, in the beginning of 2003, Dukes, along with a group of several other Starbucks employees, assembled on the seventh floor of the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle in a space called the “Liquid Lab.” This team had already made Starbucks’ Peppermint Mocha and Eggnog Latte, but they were looking for a new drink to spice up the fall season, as the other drinks had more holiday and winter themes. As the quest for the perfect recipe of a pumpkin-inspired drink began, there was a lot of trial and error in finding the perfect combination of pumpkin and espresso flavors in a drink.  The story goes that the team would take a bite of pumpkin pie, followed by a sip of espresso and play around with the blend of flavors until a yummy taste was reached. The very first PSL contained espresso, steamed milk, pumpkin spice sauce (made with nutmeg, clove and cinnamon) and was topped with whipped cream and a pumpkin pie finish. In the fall season of 2003, the latte was released into Starbucks stores in Vancouver and Washington, DC, in order to see how popular this drink would be. The drink was an enormous success and in the next fall season, this drink was released in the US, nationwide, with 200 million lattes sold in its first decade of sales. Despite this drink’s initial welcoming by Starbucks fans, its popularity wasn’t always so high.

In April of 2015, the drink’s recipe was changed. A very famous food blogger by the name of “Food Babe” published an article titled, “You’ll Never Guess What’s In A Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte (Hint: You Won’t Be Happy).” The blogger, Vani Hari, criticized Starbucks for not using real pumpkin in the famous PSL as well as their use of caramel IV coloring. Although Hari was not as concerned with the lack of actual pumpkin in the drink, the public was upset by this. In fact, Hari’s goal was to bring attention to Starbucks’ use of the caramel coloring which contained a chemical known as 4-Mel, a possible carcinogen (a substance that can cause cancer). Hari is known for criticizing many artificial food products and has received a lot of criticism herself, for publishing this article. After an exchange of emails, Starbucks finally altered their PSL recipe by adding pumpkin puree and using more natural forms of coloring such as “Fruit and Vegetable Juice,” “natural flavors,” and “Annatto,” as listed in their current recipe. While the PSL is still a drink high in added sugar, this switch in recipe did make for a healthier and improved addition to the feels of the fall season. However, people do not drink the PSL for its health benefits, they drink it to be reminded of the warmth and cheer of the fall season.

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