Between the taste, the aroma and the autumnal spirit the drink brings, it’s a well-known fact among coffee lovers that the day Starbucks releases their Pumpkin Spice Lattes is the same day fall unofficially begins. But there has to be more to why people literally flock to these drinks, along with pumpkin-spice-flavored everything else, too, right? Turns out, there is—and the science behind it will shock you.
As you probably already know, Pumpkin Spice Lattes don’t contain real pumpkin, but rather a syrup meant to mimic the flavor of pumpkin pie (the flavor usually stems from a mix of ginger, cloves, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon). But according to a study conducted by Business Insider with help from Kantha Shelke at the Institute of Food Technologists, pumpkin spice mix contains at least 340 flavor compounds, while most PSLs only contain a shocking five and 10 percent of this natural blend of spices. Translation: The other 90 percent of your latte is made up of synthetic chemicals that are tricking your brain into thinking they’re the real thing (cinnamic aldehydes, the synthetic version of cinnamon, mimics real cinnamon in your drink, eugenol emulates allspice, sabinene mimics nutmeg, and vanillin and cyclotene evoke butter).
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What’s even more interesting about this is that these five synthetic ingredients found in your PSL—cinnamic aldehydes, eugenol, sabinene, vanillin and cyclotene—can also be found in every bottle of another wildly popular drink: Coca-Cola. According to Lauren O’Neal in Brooklyn Magazine, the primary flavors in Coke include cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla, and these are the very compounds used to produce the flavors. “The mysterious, original [Coca-Cola] recipe uncovered by This American Life included cinnamon oil (which contains cinnamic aldehydes and eugenol), nutmeg oil (which contains sabinene), and vanilla (which—surprise, surprise—contains vanillin),” O’Neal explains, adding that this is why she believes Pumpkin Spice Lattes are so popular in the United States and all over the world. “It’s not because of nostalgia or basicness, at least not primarily. It’s because everyone loves Coke, and PSLs are, in essence, hot, milky Cokes.”
We’re not denying the sweet-tasting goodness of a PSL in the peak of fall, but after hearing this news (and the three-worded way it’s described), we’ll be thinking twice before ordering another one at our Starbucks counter. And if you’re already down the one- or two-a-day rabbit hole, you might want to join us, considering aside from sugar and milk, you’re not consuming any natural ingredients in these all-too-popular drinks. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, it’s a good thing these lattes are seasonal offerings.
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