The untold truth of the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte

Since its debut in 2003, the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte has become a harbinger of fall, and before summer has even had a chance to sing its swan song, we're eagerly awaiting the announcement that our favorite autumnal coffee drink is once again available to sip. With its own dedicated Twitter account, the Pumpkin Spice Latte has taken on a life of its own, and during the fall fans take to the site to express their #PSL love to the tune of thousands of mentions per day. Given the pumpkin spice hysteria we witness the moment the air even thinks about turning chilly, it's not surprising that the PSL is Starbucks' most popular seasonal release, and before it hit menus in 2017, the company had sold more than 350 million of the drinks worldwide. 

What is surprising however — given the hysteria — is how many of us actually purchase more than one coveted PSL per season. Or how often it loses in blind taste tests. Want to know more? Let's pull the lid off this fall-flavored treat and uncover the truth of the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Does it actually contain any real pumpkin?

When the world fell head over heels in love with the PSL over a decade ago, there was not a single teaspoon of real pumpkin to be found in the fall-flavored concoction. But in 2014, thanks in part to controversial blogger Vani Hari (aka the Food Babe) bringing this piece of "scandalous" information front and center, consumers took issue. Although this revelation shouldn't have been too surprising considering that what we acknowledge as "pumpkin-flavored" is typically is just a mixture of spices, the pressure was on to get some actual pumpkin into the PSL. But does real pumpkin puree mixed with coffee even work?

In 2015, Starbucks proved that it does when they revamped the PSL recipe, and added real pumpkin. Since its inception in 2003 the coffee drink had never undergone a formula change, but today their pumpkin spice sauce includes pumpkin puree. Granted, it comes after sugar and condensed skim milk on the ingredient list, but hey, it's real pumpkin nonetheless.

What about those "toxic" ingredients?

Along with the fact that it contained no real pumpkin, blogger Vani Hari also took issue with other ingredients used to make the PSL, most notably caramel color IV. In a graphic depicting what goes into a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, the Food Babe listed, among other ingredients, "2 doses of caramel color level IV coloring, made with ammonia and considered a carcinogen." With the news of this "toxic" ingredient being used in their PSLs, the "Food Babe Army" was up in arms, but was this claim baseless? According to Snopes, caramel color IV is a common food additive, and the FDA considers it safe.

However, safe as it may be, when Starbucks added real pumpkin to the PSL in 2015, they also removed the caramel coloring from the formula saying, "After hearing from customers and partners about ingredients, we took another look at this beverage... So, with that great taste you know and love, the PSL returns this fall, and this time it will be made with real pumpkin and without caramel coloring."

Does that mean it's healthier now?

Now that we're slurping up PSLs containing real live pumpkin and zero caramel coloring, it's basically like drinking raw kale juice, right? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but nope.

Registered dietitian Jessica Cording told Yahoo Health, "Adding pumpkin puree to these products does not elevate them to 'health food' status." She notes that the inclusion of the ingredient may provide a small amount of vitamins A and C, along with some fiber, but it's "negligible." Thanks to the sugar content of these types of coffee drinks, it's hard to consider them anything but dessert. 

Consider this: A Tall Pumpkin Spice Latte made with 2 percent milk and topped with whipped cream contains a whopping 39 grams of sugar, 11 grams of fat (7 grams saturated), and 300 calories. Need some context? The American Heart Association recommends limiting your daily added sugar intake to 25 grams for women and 36 grams for men, so with one 12-ounce drink, you've consumed more than your share for the day. Maybe it's a good thing the PSL is only available for a few months of the year? 

It's addictive, as proven by science

What exactly is it about the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte that makes us weak in the knees? For that answer, we need to look to the brain. According to Today.com, who spoke to NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor, Madelyn Fernstrom, there are three reasons we can't quit the PSL.

  1. Fat + sugar = bliss. Fernstrom says that the combination of fat and sugar basically do a dance on our taste buds and cause flavors to be more intense, particularly the nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon. Add in a hefty dose of salt, or as Fernstrom calls it "nature's most powerful food enhancer," and those flavors are amped up even more. Bottom line: "People love tasty drinks. And taste is number one on why people choose foods," she said.
  2. We just love fall, plain and simple. We associate the season with holiday traditions and flavors, and when we smell or taste those telltale autumnal spices contained in a PSL, our brains connect it to happy memories.
  3. The buzz — why else? We know that caffeine addiction is a real thing, and our brains tell our bodies to revolt if we don't get our fix. The energy boost we get from a PSL keeps us coming back for more.

It doesn't always win taste tests

It's hard to imagine that ardent fans could ever choose another pumpkin-flavored coffee over their beloved Starbucks PSL, but it happens more often than you might think when put to the test against competitor's lattes.

Cosmopolitan conducted a blind taste test using pumpkin spice lattes from Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks, and McDonald's, and the results will come as a shock to true Sbux PSL lovers. Overwhelmingly, Starbucks ranked dead last, with tasters noting its similarities to a candle. "Imagine taking a pumpkin spice candle, melting the wax into a liquid, and then mixing said liquid with warm milk — that is what drinking the Starbs PSL tasted like to me. Not here for it," said one taster. The winner? McDonald's, by a landslide.

In a similar test conducted by Las Vegas Review-Journal, tasters routinely chose lattes that weren't Starbucks, with even 7-Eleven besting the apparent front-runner in one case. One taster remarked upon the reveal, "I think I'm surprised by the Starbucks, because I just... I don't know... I thought it would be better." Ouch.

Most of us don't really drink that many per season

If we were to believe the countless #PSL mentions on Twitter and Instagram, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the masses are probably: a. Living at Starbucks, and b. Draining their savings accounts to support their habit. But does the social media hype really line up with the statistics?

Yes and no. Yes, the Pumpkin Spice Latte is Starbucks most popular seasonal drink, and a huge number of them have been sold. And yes, according to The NDB Group, a global information company, a consumer purchasing a Pumpkin Spice Latte does tend to spend more money per transaction, thanks to food add-ons. However, when it comes to frequency of purchase, a small percentage of consumers actually buy multiple PSLs in one season. They say 72 percent bought just one, about 20 percent bought two, and, surprisingly, only eight percent bought three or more. Basically, we all like to talk about our love for the #PSL more than we like to actually buy them.

It cannot be made vegan

"One Grande soy Pumpkin Spice Latte, no whip." While these modifications might get you a mostly dairy-free PSL, it still isn't vegan, and never will be no matter how you order. Thanks to one ingredient within the pumpkin spice sauce — condensed skim milk — there's no way to make this fall favorite completely dairy-free. Though petitions and pleas have been made to get a vegan PSL on the menu, as of 2018, Starbucks in the States have yet to comply. Those across the pond might have a glimmer of hope, however, as VegNews reports that vegan pumpkin sauce has been spotted inside a UK Starbucks location. Here's to hoping the US gets the option soon.

If you're really jonesing for a PSL-like beverage, one vegan YouTube vlogger says that you can hack the menu by ordering a soy or almond milk cinnamon dolce latte, and adding pumpkin spice. Just don't forget to forgo the whipped cream.

It doesn't really launch earlier and earlier every year

You're not imagining it: The PSL does consistently launch in the summer, specifically late August and very early September. Sure, fall starts on September 22, but since 2011, the official launch of the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte has happened no later than September 8 — still summer. But is it happening earlier and earlier each year, as media outlets tend to proclaim every August? No, it's not. Business Insider tracked the PSL launch date over the years and since 2015 it has actually been released later than years prior. Sorry, media, you're going to have to find something new to complain about.

Even if this rumor were true, there is no shortage of those willing to drink a fall-flavored coffee no matter what the temperature or season. Sa'iyda Shabazz, a PSL-lover in Los Angeles, told NBC News, "There is something so inherently fall about pumpkin spice. Even when it's 100 degrees outside, it can make you think of cool weather, the leaves changing colors and [wearing] boots." Who votes for year-round PSLs?

How to get a PSL without all the calories

We already know that a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte isn't exactly a health drink, considering a 16-ounce Grande with whole milk and whipped cream clocks in at 420 calories, 18 grams of fat, and 50 grams of sugar (yes, really). So how do you satisfy your PSL craving without breaking the calorie bank?

  • Simply going without the whipped cream topping knocks 70 calories and 7 grams of fat off. Easy peasy, right?
  • A switch from whole milk to 2 percent knocks off another 40 calories and 4 grams of fat.
  • If you can fathom drinking four ounces less, a switch to Tall with the above milk and whipped cream modifications saves another 70 calories, 2 grams of fat, and brings the sugar down to 38 grams (yes, that's still a lot).
  • To cut the sugar content down a bit, go easy on the pumpkin spice sauce. Try one pump instead of two.
  • And if you're still looking to shave those numbers down, go with a cappuccino instead of a latte. A cappuccino uses less milk, but you'll still get that coveted PSL flavor.