What once started off as a harmless Starbucks seasonal frothy beverage has now gotten out of control.
The Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL for short) was introduced in 2003. The company has since sold more than 200 million lattes. That’s around $80 million in annual revenue. Many of my friends and colleagues, including Alexandra Petri, adore the PSL. Sorry, but I have to disagree. To me, drinking a Pumpkin Spice Latte is like choosing to imbibe liquefied fall-scented potpourri.
Thanks to the success of the PSL, pumpkin spice is steadily taking over America and I refuse to continue to stand idly by.
To date, Americans have been subjected to Pumpkin Spice Latte M&M’s. Pumpkin Spice Oreos. Pumpkin spice sausage. Pumpkin spice Pringles. Pumpkin spice hamburgers. There are pumpkin spice liqueurs. I have seen evidence of pumpkin spice-encrusted salmon. There’s pumpkin spice chewing gum. Pumpkin spice is even making its way into cat litter. Men can get pumpkin spice beard oils. Pumpkin spice dog treats. Pumpkin spice e-cigarettes. Here’s a list of even more pumpkin spice products that have hit the market.
(Disclosure: The Washington Post has a historical connection to all of this, too. One of the earliest references to pumpkin spice blend comes from a 1936 recipe titled: Spice Cake Of Pumpkin Newest Dish: Delicacy Tempting to All Appetites and Easy to Prepare. Ideal Dessert for Family Dinner, Healthful for Children.” I’m sure the writer of the recipe never imagined a world where pumpkin spice foot dusting powder is a thing.)
We are beyond the point of peak levels of pumpkin spice. We aren’t even on the mountain peak anymore. We are at stratospheric levels of pumpkin spice. Without significant policy interventions, our country’s pumpkin spice industrial complex shows no signs of slowing down. According to the Nielson Company, sales of pumpkin spice products have grown 79% from 2011, raking in $361 million last year.
Nothing screams “America, Land of the Free, Home of the Basic” like U.S. companies slapping pumpkin spice into absolutely everything. Pumpkins are mediocre, at best. Pumpkins are just squash on steroids, lacking a strong flavor on their own. It’s why we need to dump cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, vanilla, sugar and caffeine on them to make them interesting. Yet pumpkin spice is everywhere, despite our collective Internet retching every time a new pumpkin spice flavored culinary abomination hits the market.
I am convinced there are more powerful forces at work here. Is there a powerful pumpkin spice lobby in Washington that we need to know about? Are there pro-pumpkin spice advocates that are convincing our lawmakers on Capitol Hill to avoid regulating pumpkin spice? Is there a network of shadowy pumpkin spice cartels across the country that has been strong-arming shopkeepers and major brands to include pumpkin spice additives to more and more products every year? I can just imagine a group of goons dressed in orange descending upon grocery stores after hours, demanding the store stock their pumpkin-spice infused bottled water, all while muttering veiled threats about “really heavy pumpkins,” “rope,” “ankles” and a “free midnight ride to the lake” should the shop owners object. (Seriously though, if these groups exist, and you have any information on these folks, please drop me an anonymous tip. Your identity will be protected, as your personal safety is important to me. Anyone that can convince stores that carrying pumpkin-spice dog treats is a good idea must have dangerous tools of persuasion at their disposal.)
A worrying result of the unregulated proliferation of pumpkin spice flavoring in American products is the fact that most of us are woefully uninformed about what’s even in these products.
“Does pumpkin spice even include pumpkin? Or is it simply cinnamon, ginger, and vanilla?” asks Jake Adelstein, a writer and journalist who has written extensively on organized crime and corruption in Japan. Adelstein grew up on a farm and his father raised pumpkins. He considers himself a “traditionalist” when it comes to pumpkin spice recipes. But even he has increasingly become skeptical of the American pumpkin spice industry. “Are we even getting authentic pumpkin spice when we want it?”
Indeed, what many of us know as pumpkin spice flavoring in lattes and other drinks is rather a cocktail of chemical compounds. Kantha Shelke, a food scientist with the Institute of Food Technologies explains that the pumpkin spice mix in lattes contains 340 compounds that give it the flavor. “What they use in pumpkin spice flavoring are chemicals like cinnamic aldehyde, which represents … the top notes of cinnamon, eugenol for allspice or cloves, terpenes for nutmeg, and vanillin for vanilla.” To Starbucks’s credit, the company announced that after more than a decade, the PSL would be made with real pumpkin this year. Will other companies follow suit?
Indeed, I would maybe, only maybe, begin to think about getting behind the annual pumpkin spiceapallooza if there were evidence that America’s pumpkin farmers, like Adelstein’s father, and organic spice cultivators were benefiting from the demand. But sales of real pumpkins dropped by nearly $9 million between 2011 and 2014.
I applaud Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for taking a strong stand on the Pumpkin Spice Latte, the original source of this orange scourge, and providing a path for an honest national dialogue. When asked if she was a Pumpkin Spice Latte kinda gal, Clinton responded: “Ha! The true answer is I used to be until I saw how many calories were in them.” The backlash from pro-Pumpkin Spice Latte advocates was swift and fiery, including rebukes from my Post colleagues Chris Cillizza and Alexandra Petri. For my part, I am glad that Clinton took such a brave position, despite the risk of losing voters. There are many of us who are growing increasingly worried about the proliferation of pumpkin spice, yet many fear challenging the pumpkin spice establishment, and incurring the wrath of our well-meaning pumpkin spice-loving friends and family. Clinton is a voice for all anti-pumpkin spice activists, and recovering PSL addicts. I hope more presidential candidates will follow suit and speak out on the issue.
Seriously, all of this is getting embarrassing. These companies are desperately preying on our desire to mark the arrival of the holidays. It’s not even about the pumpkin. It’s that the spices literally make us feel all warm and cozy as the temperature drops. But still, the fact that the pumpkin spice craze hasn’t hit market saturation yet trumps all logic. Here’s my suggestion to help make America great again: It’s time to begin squashing our out-of-control pumpkin spice obsession.