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Coupon Abbreviations
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What's in your Pumpkin Spice Latte  Check out an organic alternative to your store-bought latte.

It’s only available for a few months each year; you celebrate it’s arrival. You buy your treat, kick up your heels, and relish a few moments of relaxing bliss with your Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Then…some spoilsport on Facebook shares an article about how Pumpkin Spice Lattes are loaded with chemicals and may cause cancer. (I was totally “that person” recently. Sorry.)

If you haven’t noticed the Pumpkin Spice Latte buzz, here’s a summary from FoodBabe’s investigation:

starbucks

As intelligent, health-conscious consumers, this raises some red flags to us. Synthetic flavorings? Food dyes? GMO’s? Is there something worth our concern in this specialty drink? Let’s look into these ingredients and see what you’re really getting into if you drink a Pumpkin Spice Latte.

The Ingredients

Starbucks does not post their ingredients online. In addition, if you contact them for an ingredients list, you might get inconsistent answers. I contacted Starbucks last year (09/27/13), requesting their pumpkin spice latte ingredients, and received a very detailed response including every ingredient and their E numbers (European system for labeling food additives). Others have requested the same information but received vague, generic information or a slightly different list of ingredients. Is this a deal-breaker for me? Not really. Their ingredients are often supplied by various manufacturers, and their formulation can vary. I get it…but I don’t like having to dig for the ingredients. Just save us ALL some time, Starbucks, and publish your ingredients. I’m wasting valuable coffee-drinking time!

Here is what Starbucks told me was in their Pumpkin Spice Latte (as of 09/27/2013):

“A Pumpkin Spice Latte is steamed 2% milk (can be substituted for soy upon request), espresso, pumpkin spice sauce, whipped cream, pumpkin spice topping.

Allergen alert: Pumpkin Spice sauce contains milk.

Below you will find all ingredients I have listed above, with the exception of the espresso and milk, which do not include additives:

Pumpkin Spice Sauce:
Sugar, Condensed Nonfat Milk, Sweetened Condensed Nonfat Milk, Annatto (E160b, color), Natural and Artificial flavors, Caramel color (E150D), Salt, Potassium Sorbate (E202, a preservative)

 Pumpkin Spice Topping:
Cinnamon, Ginger, Nutmeg, Cloves

 Whipped Cream:
Each dispenser contains 16 fl oz of Whipping Cream* and 8 pumps of Starbucks Vanilla Syrup

 *Whipping Cream replaced Heavy Cream at the end of FY 2011. While this is not a lowfat product, it does contain reduced butterfat content.

 Vanilla Syrup:
Sugar, Water, Natural flavors, Preservative: Potassium Sorbate (E202), Citric Acid (E330), color: Caramel (E150d)”

Let’s break this down.

milk
espresso
pumpkin spice sauce: sugar, sweetened and unsweetened condensed milks, artificial colors (2), synthetic flavors, salt, preservatives
whipped cream: whipping cream, sugar, synthetic flavors, preservatives, and artificial color
pumpkin spice topping: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves

To Buy or Not to Buy: The Concerns

The ingredients in a Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) may not phase some people, but there are some legitimate points of concern you should review before making your decision to buy (or not to buy) a specialty drink at Starbucks.

  1. The Milk: this one irks me, because it’s such an easy fix. By serving conventional (non-organic) milk, they are also serving bioaccumulated toxins, artificial growth hormones, and antibiotics.

  2. The Coffee: the beans are conventionally grown. Coffee beans are a heavily-sprayed crop and may contain a big ol’ dose of pesticides. Again, another easy fix, Starbucks.

  3. The Sugar: a Grande (16 oz) PSL contains 49 grams (11.5 teaspoons) of sugar. That’s almost a full ¼ cup of sugar! I like my coffee sweet, but I’ve never used a measuring CUP to get a scoop of sugar into my cup of coffee. In addition, this is conventional sugar. If they switch to organic sugar it would reduce the glycemic impact.

    1. The Colors: there are two color additives involved- annatto (E160b) and caramel color (E150d). Annatto is derived from the seed of a tree and is generally recognized as “safe”. Caramel color is a different story.

      There are four types of caramel color: I, II, III, and IV.

      E150d is Caramel IV, made using ammonia and sulfites. The process creates some byproducts like 4-Methylimidazole (4-MEI) along the way. This byproduct is the “bad guy”.

      California state regulators estimate that consuming just 30 ?g of 4-MEI corresponds with a 1:100,000 risk of developing cancer. (A bottle of Pepsi One contains about 29 ?g of 4-MEI.)

      The World Health Organization classified 4-MEI as group 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans.

      Animal studies have shown 4-MEI causes increased rates of lung cancer and leukemia.

      The Pumpkin Spice Latte contains two doses of caramel color IV.

  4. The Flavorings: despite being a pumpkin “spice” latte, the only real spice you’re getting is that powdery topping they add at the end. There are only synthetic flavorings in the actual syrup and whipped cream. These “natural” and artificial flavors are all synthetically created, with “natural” flavors being extracted from just about any substance.

  5. The Sneakiness: If you are a vegan or have a dairy sensitivity/allergy, you’ll have to skip the Pumpkin Spice Latte altogether. The pumpkin spice syrup contains milk. So, even if you order a soy PSL, you’re still getting dairy.

Alternatives

I LOVE COFFEE, and, up until a couple years ago, I LOVED the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks. [Yes, the caps lock is thoroughly justified in that sentence.] After cleaning up my diet, removing a bunch of processed foods, and making a lot of organic switches (and dropping 40 lbs in the process), I went back to try my favorite fall drink again, expecting to enjoy it as an occasional indulgence.

I couldn’t drink it. After the first taste, I could tell the difference…it wasn’t “real”. I didn’t taste fall; I didn’t taste cinnamon. I tasted flavorings.

If you love coffee, love the flavors of fall, and love real food…you need to make your own pumpkin spice syrup! Trust me, you’ll love it.

DIY Pumpkin Spice Syrup Recipe in 6 minutes or Less

½ cup organic sugar

½ cup water

¼ cup heavy cream (or coconut cream for a dairy-free option)

1 tablespoon organic pumpkin pie spice (recipe below)

1 teaspoon organic vanilla extract

DIY Pumpkin Pie Spice Blend

1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon organic ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground organic nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground organic ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground organic cloves

1 small pinch of ground allspice

Combine and store.

In a small saucepan, combine sugar, water, cream, and spices. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low, stirring as it cooks. Simmer until the sugar has dissolved and syrup has thickened just slightly. It took me 2-4 minutes. Remove from heat, add vanilla extract. Let cool before storing in a glass container. Refrigerate for up to one month.

To make the latte, heat 2-4 ounces of milk and froth, if desired. Add 2-4 spoonfuls of spiced syrup and stir to combine. Add 1 shot espresso or 2 ounces super-strong coffee. Make it extra fancy, and top it with whipped cream and dust with pumpkin pie spice.

Make friends anywhere you go: keep a bottle of your homemade pumpkin spice syrup on you at all times. Reuse an old mini syrup or mini jam bottle and carry your super-cool, organic pumpkin spice sauce with you. I’m planning on bringing a jar of this syrup on our camping trip with the Cub Scouts this weekend.

In-Store Alternatives

No time to set-up a Pumpkin Spice factory at home? If you want to enjoy an espresso drink in the store, you do have a few options without any food colorings or synthetic flavors.

  1. Go for the espresso. Order a single or double espresso. Add your sweetener and enjoy your hard-core coffee.

  2. Espresso Macchiato. This espresso drink gives you one or two shots of espresso with a little bit of frothed milk on top. Still hard-core.

  3. Cappuccino: espresso + steamed milk + frothed milk. A “dry” cappuccino gives you more froth and less milk, while a “wet” cappuccino gives you more milk and less froth.

  4. Caffé Latte: espresso + steamed milk + frothed milk.

You can add (or request) a sprinkle of cinnamon, nutmeg, or even a bit of the pumpkin spice powder on top of your drink, if you want to add some more flavor.

Live near a Whole Foods store? Stop in and visit their in-store coffee shop for an all-natural, food coloring-free Pumpkin Spice Latte!

Perspective

The Pumpkin Spice Latte isn’t really the villain here. The concern truly lies in the use of synthetic colors and flavorings and the lack of product disclosure. If this is an important issue to you, contact Starbucks and politely let them know you’d like to see them lose the artificial colorings. After all, they only affect the look of the drink. Let them know you’d like to see some real spices and extracts in their drinks instead of the synthetic flavorings. It never hurts to ask, right? In the meantime, try a pumpkin spice latte at-home recipe! There are dozens out there if you don’t love mine.

How do you feel about the artificial colors and flavorings in your coffee drinks? Do you have a favorite pumpkin spice recipe to share?

Next week…

Organic vanilla extract can be a really expensive purchase. Is it necessary? How does organic vanilla differ from conventional or imitation vanilla extract? Can you make it yourself and still save money? Learn how to make your own homemade organic vanilla extract before all the holiday baking this winter!

This is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.

    • blessedwith2

      Thanks for sharing this, very eye opening

    • Stella02

      I have been following you since your posts started and wanted to share how much I appreciate your passion and dedication you have put into each item you’ve brought to us. Thank you so much for being real, with baby steps as you’ve made it doable, no intimidating, and affordable with options for every level of commitment.

    • Guest

      Just a head’s up…”Organic” doesn’t necessarily mean organic. Everyone needs to investigate the products they are buying to make sure the companies practices are truly organic whether the package says “certified orgainc” or not.

    • David M.

      Gotta take it with a grain of salt…the Food Babe has been known to make some pretty iffy statements and comments on her blog, I don’t rely on her as a good source of info.

    • Jenna

      It doesn’t bother me. Food Babe has been known to over-exaggerate her claims, and this was no exception. She rails about ingredients that are not that uncommon, and she doesn’t seem to understand what they’re used for. (She once went off on Subway for using an ingredient in their bread that creates bubbles, saying that it’s used to make yoga mats. Yes, it’s used to create the bubbles in the foam, but that doesn’t mean it’s not safe.) She also seems to like going off on pesticides, but pesticides are used in organic farming– and those are used more frequently and tend to be more toxic. (Remember, just because it’s “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe, just as synthetic doesn’t make something harmful.)

      In the end, Food Babe simply just has a knack for making scary-sounding words people are unfamiliar with sound… scary. Once you do a little digging into what these things are and what they are used for, it’s really not half as bad (if at all) as what she claims, and her followers end up whipped into a frenzy over nothing.

      She’s also using either severely outdated or outright incorrect information regarding the pumpkin spice latte. So wherever she gets her information is a questionable source. You can see the full response to her “analysis” here: http://www.starbucksmelody.com/2014/08/28/you-can-happily-enjoy-your-pumpkin-spice-latte-a-response-to-foodbabe-com-psl2014/

      As stated, with the pumpkin spice latte it really only comes down to whether or not you have an issue with artificial flavors and colors, and I’m sure nobody’s shocked at the inclusion of those.