Pumpkin Spice Lattes — tasty or toxic?
One thing’s for certain: Starbucks’ most popular seasonal caffeinated treat, which has been sold more than 200 million times in its 11-year existence, is highly polarizing.
There are some, such as blogger Vani Hari — better known as Food Babe — whose Aug. 25 article “You’ll Never Guess What’s in a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte (Hint: You Won’t Be Happy)” went viral, with more than 13 million Facebook and Twitter shares in a matter of days.
The blogger, who is known for her critiques of mass-market foods, claims that Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte is a toxic mix of chemicals that don’t belong in the human body.
“Where’s the pumpkin?” she writes, before breaking down the ingredients in the autumnal drink — which include caramel coloring, possibly genetically modified organism (GMO) milk and a whole lot of sugar.
But Keri Gans, a New York City-based nutritionist and the author of “The Small Change Diet,” thinks that Hari’s bottom line on the drink is, well, out of line.
“She’s an alarmist,” Gans told the Daily News. “This is her shtick and unfortunately, I think, don’t think all her points are well validated in the scientific community.”
Hari has been on Starbucks’ case for the past two years, taking down everything from its Frappuccinos to its Refreshers beverages to its baked goods, due to questionable ingredients.
Because the coffee behemoth doesn’t post its drinks’ ingredients online — just those of its foods — Hari was only able to dig up their beverage ingredients after a back-and-forth with Starbucks headquarters led her to grab the bull by the horns. Or in this case, the flavor syrup bottles from behind the barista bar.
“I just need to ask for the bottles so I could see for myself,” Hari told the Daily News of her initial investigation into the caffeine giant. “I started to write down the ingredients of the Frappuccino syrup. I got a sense of, ‘Whoa, these flavored drinks are full of processed food chemicals — I can’t believe they’re adding all this and charging a premium.'”
When she asked Starbucks for an ingredient list for the ever-popular PSL, she was told it “is of pumpkin and traditional fall spice flavors combined with espresso and steamed milk, topped with whipped cream and pumpkin pie spice.”
But that wasn’t enough for Food Babe.
Hari eventually got Starbucks to cave and fork over a list of ingredients.
Of most pressing concern to the blogger is Caramel Color Class IV — scientifically known as 4-MEI — which Hari says is a cancer-causing agent.
But in a statement to the Daily News, the FDA said that that ingredient is nothing to worry about, though it continues to look into it.
“The agency has studied the use of caramel as a color additive in foods for decades,” a spokeswoman told the Daily News, adding that, “given recent concerns expressed about 4-MEI, and to ensure that the use of caramel colors in food continues to be safe, the FDA has tested a variety of foods for 4-MEI levels and is also reviewing data on the safety of 4-MEI.”
Hari is also not a fan of the natural and artificial flavors in the drink mix.
Artificial flavors are “things like petroleum,” she said. And natural flavors can be “anything under the sun. A great example is, food manufacturers can make vanilla and raspberry products with a beaver’s anal glands,” she said.
But the FDA also told The News that natural and artificial flavors are regulated.
Gans said that multiple, applicable studies are necessary to make a sound decision about ingredients — not “one random study,” which she said could be what Hani is relying on.
Her distaste of carrageenan in Starbucks’ soy milk, Gans said, appears to be based on the animal data testing of one compound that may not even be used by Starbucks.
“You need to look at entire body of evidence and you need to turn to the FDA,” Gans said. “The FDA does their job and reviews the science.”
Gans is more concerned with the nutritionals of the seasonal drink — not its ingredients.
“To me, the main concern about ordering a Pumpkin Spice Latte is the calories in them,” she said. “As a nutrition expert, I’m more concerned about a Grande having 380 calories, 13 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat and 49 grams of sugar — more sugar than a candy bar.”
But Hari is still leading a takedown of the tastemaker.
“They’ve created a false sense of superiority,” she said of Starbucks. “I felt like I really needed to break that down for people.”
It appears that Starbucks is listening to Hari. The company told the Daily News it is “actively looking at phasing out caramel coloring.”
There’s no timeline on getting it on that, though, which strikes a nerve with Food Babe.
“There are millions of people drinking those chemicals and not knowing it could cause cancer,” she said. “I think they owe (a timeline) to their customers.”