Consumers fight for their right to real pumpkin: A PSL saga

SONY DSCHoly August – Fall is coming! And with it, a Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) that has been revamped since your last sip in 2014. If you haven’t heard, Starbucks announced this week that they’re changing their PSL recipe to include REAL PUMPKIN. I’ll let that sink in, because it’s big news and everyone is freaking out.

But how did this happen and why would Starbucks change a recipe with such a massive cult following?

One of the most interesting parts about this story to me is that it started with a popular food blogger, Vani Hari aka Food Babe, and her community. It’s a pretty awesome example of consumers standing up and taking control of the food they put in their bodies. Consumers are demanding healthier, real food, and big companies are being forced to listen. (Quick disclaimer: Hari has gotten some flack for not always backing up her claims with science, but it appears this story hit home with a lot of truth. Bear with me on this one.)

Here’s the back story. As Hari explains, she started digging into Starbucks’ PSL recipe. Turns out that it took a lot of digging. But after many emails and calls and a lot of research, she discovered the true ingredients and what she found was pretty frightening. Not only was real pumpkin missing – which is not too surprising – but the ingredients list included Caramel Color Level IV (linked to cancer), milk that contains carrageenan (linked to intestinal inflammation and cancer), an obscene amount of sugar and more – all of which she published on her blog.

FoodBabe Image

Kudos to her for not giving up the investigation. Kudos to her community too for what they did next.

People began reaching out to Starbucks directly, per Hari’s request. Within just a few days, hundreds of thousands of people liked her post on Facebook on the topic and the actual blog post was viewed millions of times. Many consumers vowed to stop drinking PSLs or stop going to Starbucks altogether. News media began catching on and the story was picked up by Fox & Friends, Entrepreneur, USA Today, Jezebel, Business Insider, Medical Daily and more.

Starbucks spokespeople reacted well. They responded to interview requests quickly and their messages were consistent: (1) Starbucks is developing a listing of core beverage recipes online and will have them available in the near future. Listing ingredients for every one of the 170,000 ways to customize beverages is complex and takes time. (2) Starbucks is actively looking to phase out caramel coloring. When used in Starbucks beverages, the level of caramel coloring is “below the No Significant Risk Level (NSRL) and safe to consume.” (3) While there is no pumpkin, the PSL features “unmistakable pumpkin pie spices of fall – cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and clover.”

They corrected misinformation and reinforced that they maintained an “open dialogue” with Hari.

While Starbucks refused to give a timeline for change – which would have potentially set them up to disappoint customers – they did promise change and are now delivering on that promise by adding real pumpkin and removing Caramel Color Level IV. The update to the recipe begins to rebuild trust in the brand and demonstrates that they care about their customers (as well as, I’m sure, the potential impact on their profits from this very popular drink).

This is certainly not the first time we have seen a mass call for change among the public and it certainly won’t be the last. As consumers are paying more attention to the ingredients in their food, and the trend toward healthy living grows, these stories will be more frequent and it will be interesting to watch how companies respond.

Do you think Starbucks handled the public outcry well? And more importantly – are you going to try the revamped PSL this fall?

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