Updated 4/6/2015 (see bottom of post)
I really love the smell of pumpkin (especially in the Fall), but, there is at least one seasonal pumpkin treat that I will never order and that’s the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. With more than 200 million sold to date, these drinks sell like hotcakes this time of year, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said it “still ranks as its most popular seasonal beverage”. But, does anyone know what’s really in it?
I found out, and I’m going to break it all down for you here.
But first, I want to mention that I get riled up when restaurants refuse to disclose their ingredients, because we have the right to know what we are eating and drinking. I’ve tried for years to get ingredient information from Starbucks and it’s been a bit frustrating to say the least. If you’ve ever tried emailing their customer service for ingredients you probably know what I’m talking about.
This week, we emailed them asking for the complete list of ingredients in the Pumpkin Spice Latte and this was their response:
“The Pumpkin Spice Latte is of pumpkin and traditional fall spice flavors combined with espresso and steamed milk, topped with whipped cream and pumpkin pie spice. If you ever have any questions or concerns in the future, please don’t hesitate to get in touch”.
After several more emails back and forth, they were still refusing to share the ingredients:
While we understand that some customers would like to know the nutrition information for their specific customized beverage, unfortunately we are unable to provide this level of detail for every beverage customization request. The beverage information that is available on Starbucks.com reflects the beverage offerings currently on our menu with the most common customization options.
For a company that prides itself in its transparency, it’s unbelievable to me that this is how they respond to customers who ask for information about what’s in their drinks. After really putting the pressure on, I was finally able to get the complete list, but it wasn’t easy. While they list some ingredients on their website, they still do not list the ingredients in their most popular items: their drinks! This includes all of their lattes, frappuccinos, macchiatos, smoothies, etc. Starbucks doesn’t even publish the ingredients in their “Kid’s Drinks” – keeping parents completely in the dark. If you have a food allergy, their allergen information isn’t available online either.
How’s that for transparency?
Besides trying to get an employee to spill the beans, pretty much the only way to get the ingredients in their drinks is to go into their online store and search for each of the individual components that make up these drinks, but they are not all listed here. Quite frankly, this is a pain. This also requires you to know all of the components that make up the drink that you order. For instance, the Pumpkin Spice Latte isn’t just espresso, syrup and milk. If you order it the usual way on the menu, it contains espresso, pumpkin sauce, steamed milk (or soy milk), whipped cream and spice topping – and these each come with their own ingredient list.
Another way to get ingredients is to email and call customer service, or to ask a corporate contact at Starbucks (if you’re lucky enough to know one like me). We used all of these avenues to get the ingredients in this drink, and you know what?
We got different ingredients.
Overall, the ingredients were similar, but there were slight differences. We initially called Starbucks customer service and they said that all of the syrups sold in their online store are the same ones that are used in the restaurant, and that specifically the Pumpkin Sauce is the same. The online version here says Pumpkin Sauce contains high fructose corn syrup. They also divulged the ingredients in the whipped cream, spice topping, and soy milk.
Shortly thereafter, we also received a response to our email inquiry and this is when things became shady.
This time the ingredient list they sent over didn’t have any high fructose corn syrup on it. Rather, it was replaced with “sweetened condensed nonfat milk”. After a couple email exchanges, they seemed to confirm that HFCS is an ingredient:
“Yes the sauce that we sell online at www.starbucks.com is that same sauce that we use in our stores. I understand you concerns about high fructose corn syrup being used in the Sweentened Condensed Nonfat Milk. Please be aware that product information is provided to us by the suppliers who manufacture food and beverage items for Starbucks Coffee Company. Variations may exist due to periodic changes in formulations. While we attempt to provide product information that is as complete as possible, product changes or new product introductions may cause this information to become outdated or incomplete. Products may vary from location to location”.
I wasn’t done yet. I also contacted a PR rep at Starbucks whom I had been in contact with previously and asked her to send me the ingredients. According to her, “The condensed milk is sweetened with sugar (no HFCS)”.
As you can see, this makes for a very confusing customer experience, and I still don’t really know if it contains high fructose corn syrup (or not).
Why won’t they just publish ingredients online and end the confusion?
They obviously know what the ingredients are in each of their drinks, so I see no reason for them to hold back from publishing them (in their entirety) online just like they do for their food items. This would make it easy for their customers to know exactly what they are drinking. I believe the reason that they’re dragging their feet is because they don’t want you to know about the harmful additives in their biggest selling items.
Case In Point: You’ll get 2 doses of Class IV Caramel Coloring in Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte.
You’ve probably heard me talk about caramel coloring before, and that’s because I think it’s one of the most hazardous chemicals being added to our food. Although it sounds harmless, food safety and consumer watch dog groups say it is not.
There are four different types (classes) of caramel coloring and two of those types contain the dangerous substance 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel). Starbucks uses Class IV Caramel Color, considered the most harmful type that contains 4-Mel, in many of their drink syrups and sauces. It’s even in their whipped cream!
Why Starbucks should stop using Class IV Caramel Coloring immediately:
- It’s created in a laboratory by reacting corn sugar with ammonia and sulfites under high pressure and temperature, which produces the byproduct 4-Mel.
- A U.S government funded study found that feeding mice caramel coloring IV (which contained 4-Mel) increased their risk of developing lung cancer and leukemia, at every dosage level.
- The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies 4-Mel as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.
- Any food or drink that contains more than 29 micrograms of 4-Mel requires a cancer warning label In California (under Prop 65) that says, “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer.”
- The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the FDA to ban caramel coloring in 2011 due to safety concerns and the cancer risk of allowing this ingredient in our food.
- It has no nutritional benefits and is only used cosmetically to improve the appearance of food and drinks, yet there are safer alternatives available to food manufacturers.
- It’s sometimes added unnecessarily to food and drinks that are naturally brown or that are not even visible to the consumer (e.g. baby vitamin drops).
- It’s the most widely used food coloring in the world, which makes it easy to consume excessive amounts.
- Thankfully, the FDA is currently reviewing its safety and GRAS status, due to a Consumer Reports study that found excessive levels in many popular drinks.
In previous correspondence with Starbucks, they told me they have no plans to remove the ingredient and, “in all instances where the color is used in our beverages, the level is well below the No Significant Risk Level (NSRL) allowed by California’s Prop 65, regarded as a conservative evaluation system, and safe to consume”. I haven’t seen any testing results that show the exact levels of 4-Mel found in Starbucks drinks, so we just have to take their word for it on this one. Also, even if the level is below what’s allowed, what if someone has a Vente (Starbuck’s largest size) with the double dose of caramel coloring within the syrup and whipcream – what’s the amount of caramel coloring then? Even if the levels are below what’s permitted in California, it’s still not safe. In the opinion of toxicologist Dr. Urvashi Rangan, “There is no ‘safe’ level of 4-MeI, but if you have set a threshold, it should be well below the Prop 65 level (29 micrograms/day) – and more like 3 micrograms/day”. Roasted coffee itself has been shown to contain trace amounts of 4-Mel. Couple that with the fact that this coloring is in just about every processed food you can imagine, so you may be cumulatively eating more of this stuff than you realize – and no amount is safe.
Would you really care if the syrup and sauces that they squirt into your coffee are colored brown? It’s going into brown coffee anyhow…. it’s totally ridiculous to me that caramel coloring is even considered a necessary ingredient and that Starbucks doesn’t ask their suppliers to completely remove it.
Where’s the pumpkin?
After reading the ingredients in the Pumpkin Spice Latte, I can tell you that there’s absolutely no pumpkin. Instead, you’ll be drinking this:
- A Huge Dose of Sugar – A lot of it. Order up a non-fat grande and you’ll get served 50 grams of sugar. Is it a pick-me-up from the caffeine, or all that toxic sugar?
- Monsanto Milk – Even though over a hundred thousand customers are demanding it, Starbucks refuses to serve organic milk (at all locations). Due to consumer pressure, they stopped using milk from cows injected with growth hormones several years ago, but their milk still comes from cows that are fed genetically modified feed all day long – which is really supporting Monsanto and the biotech companies. When cows survive primarily on a cheap grain diet (corn, soy, alfalfa, cotton) it’s bad for the health of the animals, which is contributing to the overuse of antibiotics and the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If they made the switch to organic milk, or even offered it for that matter, it would ensure that it didn’t come from cows grazing on GMO grains or injected with antibiotics.
- Pesticide Residue – Starbucks doesn’t serve organic coffee in most locations. Non-organic coffee is considered one of the heaviest chemically treated crops in the world, especially when it’s imported from developing nations that allow pesticides that are restricted in the U.S. due to health concerns, such as Chlorpyrifos.
- Natural and Artificial Flavors – Since this drink contains absolutely no pumpkin, this is where all that flavor comes from. The problem with both artificial and natural flavors is that their sources are proprietary and you never really know what they are made from.
- Preservatives and Sulfites – Which may cause allergic reactions or asthma attacks, and is linked with DNA damage.
If you’re vegan, I have a specific warning for you.
Many of you may be shocked to find out that when you order a Pumpkin Spice latte with soy milk, it’s still not vegan. This is because the Pumpkin Sauce contains condensed nonfat milk, and many Starbucks employees don’t realize this and have misinformed customers. This is yet another reason that Starbucks Corporate should be transparent about what’s in their drinks by publishing complete ingredients online.
You’ll also get more than you bargained for if you order up a soy latte, because the Starbucks “proprietary” organic soy milk contains carrageenan – which is linked to gastrointestinal inflammation and cancer. It also contains another dose of added sugar, preservatives and natural flavors.
Complete Ingredients in Starbucks “Pumpkin” Spice Latte:
Milk, Espresso (Water, Brewed Espresso Coffee), Pumpkin Spice Flavored Sauce (Sugar, Condensed Nonfat Milk, High Fructose Corn Syrup or Sweetened Condensed Nonfat Milk (Milk, Sugar), Annatto (for color), Natural and Artificial Flavors, Caramel Color (class IV), Salt, Potassium Sorbate (preservative)), Whip Cream (Whipping Cream, Starbucks Vanilla Syrup (Sugar, Water, Natural Flavors, Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid, Caramel Color (class IV)), Pumpkin Spice Topping: Cinnamon, Ginger, Nutmeg, Clove, Sulfites.
Starbucks Organic Soy Milk (plain): Filtered Water, Organic Whole Soybeans, Organic Evaporated Cane Juice, Calcium Carbonate, Organic Vanilla Flavor, Natural Flavors, Sea Salt, Carrageenan, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Bicarbonate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Vitamin B12, Zinc Gluconate.
Starbucks Organic Soy Milk (vanilla): Filtered Water, Organic Whole Soybeans, Organic Evaporated Cane Juice, Calcium Carbonate, Natural Vanilla Flavors, Natural Flavors, Sea Salt, Carrageenan, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Bicarbonate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Vitamin B12.
Ditch the Starbucks and Drink This Instead!
You can also try a latte with my homemade pistachio milk, which is one of my favorite treats! Also, seek out locally-owned organic fair trade coffee shops in your area. My favorite is Larry’s Beans Organic Fair Trade coffee.
Starbucks: Stop Putting Toxic Chemicals In Your Pumpkin Spice Latte.
- Tell Starbucks to remove unnecessary carcinogenic caramel coloring by commenting on their Facebook and Twitter pages.
- Call their customer service department at 1-800-782-7282 and ask them to remove these harmful additives and post all of their ingredients online.
- Join GMO Inside and sign the petition asking them to serve organic milk at all locations.
- Share this blog post with everyone you know. The more people that know the truth, the more Starbucks will be forced to make a change.
Thank you for your activism and spreading the word in advance. Together we can change the food system. Hopefully in the near future, we can have treats like these without worrying about the toxic chemicals in them!
Update 4/6/2015: I received an email from Starbucks representatives that they have started to remove caramel coloring level IV. “we recently transitioned the vanilla syrup in our US and Canada stores to a new formula which is free from caramel coloring. We prioritized vanilla as it is an ingredient in our whipped cream, so with this one change we removed caramel coloring from many beverages. We are actively working on the rest and don’t have a specific timeline to share at this time.” Go Food Babe Army Go!