From its commitment to the Italian coffeehouse tradition to its “Race Together” campaign, Starbucks has often tried to keep it real. And after an influential food blogger took action, one of the company’s heretofore ersatz offerings — Pumpkin Spice Latte, a.k.a. “PSL,” established in 2003 — will include actual pumpkin.
“After hearing from customers and partners about ingredients, we took another look at this beverage and why we created it so many years ago,” Peter Dukes — Starbucks’s “Director of Espresso and Brewed Coffee Americas” — wrote in a blog post entitled “Big News for the Beloved Pumpkin Spice Latte.” “It was simple — espresso, perfectly steamed milk, warm fall spices with delicious flavor of pumpkin pie that reminds you of the cool, crisp days of autumn. 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.”
The Pumpkin Spice Latte confirmed the change via Twitter. “In between a yoga retreat and a vision quest, I made a big decision to use real pumpkin,” it wrote. “My dad is so proud.”
Though Starbucks did not credit her with motivating the change, the PSL’s real pumpkin came after Vani Hari, a food blogger known as the “Food Babe,” targeted the drink in a post last year.
“Almost exactly one year ago, I published a simple blog post without realizing how much of a wave of change that it would create,” Hari wrote. “That post, ‘You’ll Never Guess What’s In A Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte (Hint: You Won’t Be Happy)‘ was my second investigation into Starbucks, which exposed their lack of transparency when it comes to the ingredients in their drinks.”
Hari’s list of alleged problems with the PSL was long. Among her complaints: She took issue with the drink’s caramel coloring, an alleged carcinogen; objected to its high sugar content; decried Starbucks’s use of “Monsanto Milk,” or milk “from cows that are fed genetically modified feed all day long”; and she pointed out that it had no pumpkin.
Today, she took credit for the company’s new choices on behalf of her “Food Babe Army.”
“I have been keeping in constant contact with Starbucks — emailing them nearly every month and asking them for updates on their progress,” she wrote. “Considering that they don’t use caramel coloring in their drinks overseas, it should be a pretty quick change, right? While the process has been slow, we are getting what we asked for.”
— Food Babe (@thefoodbabe) August 18, 2015
The PSL’s new ingredient list, which it posted online, did seem more Food Babe-friendly:
- Pumpkin Spice Flavored Sauce (Sugar, Condensed Skim Milk, Pumpkin Puree, Contains 2% or Less of Fruit and Vegetable Juice for Color, Natural Flavors, Annatto [Color], Potassium Sorbate [Preservative], Salt)
- Whipped Cream (Light Whipping Cream [Cream, Mono and Diglycerides, Carrageenan])
- Starbucks Vanilla Syrup (Sugar, Water, Natural Flavors, Potassium Sorbate [Preservative], Citric Acid)
- Pumpkin Spice Topping (Cinnamon, Ginger, Nutmeg, Clove)
Yet though Starbucks’s move came as many companies seek to eliminate artificial ingredients, Hari wasn’t satisfied. Perhaps surprisingly, it turned out that the PSL’s lack of real pumpkin really wasn’t a major sticking point for the Food Babe.
“Pointing out that they didn’t use real pumpkin in their sauce wasn’t one of my big concerns, but it was something that the media really clung to (and I’ve been criticized quite a bit for for writing about it),” she wrote. “… They have now added real pumpkin to their sauce, but I still see that they’re using natural flavors (which are proprietary chemicals that make processed food taste better than it should).”
She added: “I still won’t be consuming it!”
Hari, it should be noted, has been criticized for her sometimes controversial positions on nutrition — and called the “Jenny McCarthy of Food” by the blog Science-Based Medicine.
“Scientists splutter with frustration that to Ms. Hari, the word ‘chemical’ is always a pejorative and that she yells fire about toxins but ignores that fruits and vegetables are full of naturally occurring toxins, and that the dose makes the poison,” the New York Times wrote in March.
As the Starbucks-Food Babe Pumpkin Spice War seemed to draw to its natural conclusion, the forces of artificial pumpkin also lost a minor skirmish over at Panera Bread Co. The company announced its pumpkin latte will also contain real pumpkin, and be made “entirely without artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup,” as the Associated Press reported. Panera’s version of the popular fall beverage will be available starting Sept. 9.
Though the AP described the companies as “in a fight to win over fans of the beverage in coming weeks,” the fight may be a bit one-sided. Starbucks is a much more valuable company than Panera, and the sandwich shop has just about about 1,900 shops in the U.S. and Canada, while the ubiquitous coffee stop has 21,000 stores around the world.
David, however, will take the battle to Goliath: Panera will offer its pumpkin latte on Tuesday in Seattle outside of Starbucks’s original location.