On Monday, a Starbucks executive with the baffling title “Director, Espresso and Brewed Coffee Americas,” wrote a blog post with the headline, “Big News for the Beloved Pumpkin Spice Latte.” The big news is that when the Pumpkin Spice Latte returns to Starbucks outlets for a limited time this fall, it will be made with a different recipe. Now, for the first time, the Pumpkin Spice Latte will contain actual pumpkin.
This is a terrible idea for two reasons.
The first is that, in making this change, Starbucks is capitulating to a fear-mongering food blogger whom we’d all be better off ignoring. Public awareness that Pumpkin Spice Lattes contain no actual pumpkin has been percolating for years—see, for instance, this 2012 essay by Felix Salmon, which acknowledges “that pumpkin dishes don’t even need any actual pumpkin in them in order to cash in on the warming, autumnal vibe,” or this 2013 video by the New York Times’ flavor expert Michael Moss, which blows open “the industry’s biggest secret: there often is little or no actual pumpkin” in pumpkin-flavored foods and drinks. For a while, this was just a fun factoid about the dystopian, consumerist, David Foster Wallace-esque world we inhabit, but no one really cared that there was no pumpkin in the PSL. After all, no one orders a sweetened latte under the belief that they’re getting a nourishing serving of vegetables.
Then, last year, Vani Hari, a wildly popular blogger known as the Food Babe who gained a following by stoking irrational fears about GMOs and “toxins” in foods, wrote a blog post about all the ostensible dangers of drinking PSLs, dangers like “preservatives and sulfites” and non-organic milk. One ingredient singled out by the Food Babe may actually be hazardous—caramel coloring is definitely carcinogenic in mice, which makes some scientists think it’s carcinogenic in humans, too. (Starbucks announced this week that they’re cutting caramel coloring from the PSL, too.) But most of the Food Babe’s outrage was misplaced, and her shock that there’s “no real pumpkin” in a PSL would be cute if it weren’t accompanied by so much nonsense about imaginary risks.
So it’s disappointing that Starbucks is adding pumpkin to its PSL to appease an influential but misguided kook. But that’s not the only reason adding pumpkin to the PSL is a bad idea. It’s a bad idea because pumpkin—and here I’m talking about pumpkin, the unadulterated gourd flesh—doesn’t taste good.
As Salmon wrote in 2012, “Pumpkin, on its own, is not a very appetizing food at all.” He called it “dense and stringy”; I’d add earthy, vegetal, and sometimes bitter. The only reason pumpkin pie tastes delicious is that it has lots of dairy, sugar, and spices in it—the pumpkin is only there for texture, color, and bragging rights. The PSL already has dairy, sugar, and spices in it—and that’s why it’s so popular! It’s all the flavor of pumpkin pie with none of the bulk. Adding something potentially distasteful to a beloved concoction is only asking for trouble. And if Starbucks has added such a tiny amount of pumpkin puree to its recipe that it doesn’t affect the flavor at all, well, that’s silly.
I’m not a huge PSL fan myself, but I know that the PSL craze is real. And I know that fans often don’t respond kindly to unanticipated changes in beloved products. (See: New Coke, Gmail’s tabs, Felicity’s haircut.) If Starbucks can pull off this recipe change without alienating the millions of Americans who liked the PSL just fine the way it was, well, more power to Starbucks. But if the addition of real pumpkin just makes the latte smell and taste funky, then, Starbucks, it’s OK to change your mind back. After all, regardless of whether there’s actual pumpkin in it, the spirit of pumpkin has been inside the PSL all along.