TIME Food & Drink

A Deep Fried Pumpkin Spice Latte Is Now a Thing You Can Put Into Your Face

Yes, this is a real thing

Okay. So. Somebody went ahead and made a deep fried version of Starbucks’ beloved (yet rather divisive) pumpkin spice latte. Now, you’re probably thinking something like, Ugh, what, why? or Ew, that sounds gross or Seriously with this pumpkin thing? Can you not?

Those are all very reasonable initial reactions, but before you go any further, please take a look at this culinary creation and tell me it doesn’t look incredibly appetizing:

Oh Bite It

Food blogger Amy Erickson of Oh, Bite It came up with the idea for these deep fried PSL bites after creating something similar with Guinness and tequila shots. To create these treats, Erickson suggests using store-bought angel food cake or poundcake. (She used poundcake because it holds more flavor.) Then you basically just soak them in a pumpkin spice latte, fry them and sprinkle them with cinnamon and sugar. Dipping them in whipped cream is optional, but probably a good idea to achieve maximum deliciousness.

Check out the full recipe here. They’re basically mini pumpkin-cinnamon doughnuts — and they’re so much easier to make than Cronuts.

MONEY Fast Food

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Fast Food Drive-Thru

Smile on drive-thru sign
Jerome Wilson—Alamy

Among other curiosities, we've found out where and when drive-thru service is quickest, why Starbucks will have more and more drive-thrus, and why Chipotle may never have a single one.

Here are some fascinating factoids that’ll make for great conversation the next time you’re waiting on line at the drive-thru—and that perhaps will even influence what you order.

The drive-thru is getting slower. OK, so maybe this is one part of the drive-thru experience that doesn’t come as a total surprise. But the latest version of an annual study from QSR Magazine (QSR = quick serve restaurant) confirms that wait times at the drive-thru are on the rise. Last year’s study indicated that the average drive-thru wait time hit 181 seconds, up from 173 seconds the year before. According to the new study—an expanded version that incorporated 23 quick-serve restaurant brands, up from just seven in 2013—the average wait time reached a record high of 203 seconds. (Perhaps that’s why people were so excited about McDonald’s one-minute drive-thru guarantee.)

Midafternoon is when drive-thrus are fastest and friendliest. The wait at the drive-thru for breakfast tends to be mercifully brief, with the average clocking in at 175 seconds. This is understandable considering that breakfast orders tend to be small and simple, typically one person ordering coffee and a breakfast sandwich on the way to work. Not only do menus expand during lunch and dinner hours, but orders are more likely being placed for two or more people, and the customizable options multiply (for instance, the choice of sauce with a customer’s nuggets or dressing with a salad). As a result, orders are more complicated and time-consuming to get ready, explaining why drive-thru lunch orders average 214 seconds, while dinner takes up the most time of all, 226 seconds. Overall, the optimal time of day to hit the drive-thru is the mid-afternoon “snack” period, when wait times average 173 seconds—and when, per the QSR survey, 33% of customers rate the service as “very friendly,” the highest percentage of any order time.

The first drive-thru opened in 1947 (and it wasn’t a McDonald’s). By the World War II era, carhop service for drive-up restaurants serving burgers and other fast-ish food was common. But it wasn’t until 1947 that the first drive-thru opened, reportedly at Red’s Giant Hamburg on Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri. Red’s closed in 1984, so the award for the longest-running burger drive-thru goes to the original In-N Out Burger. It opened in 1948 in the Los Angeles area, and yes, it was based on the unique concept of a drive-thru hamburger stand using a (then) state-of-the-art two-way speaker box.

The first drive-thru-focused chain opened in 1951 (and it wasn’t McDonald’s). It was Jack in the Box, another California-born concept created to take advantage of the burgeoning car culture. The original Jack in the Box was in San Diego and was drive-thru-only, offering motorists hamburgers to go for 18¢ apiece. While most Jack in the Boxes now also have indoor dining areas, roughly 85% of the orders at its 2,250 locations are either drive-thru or to-go. Jack in the Box is also credited with creating a rather self-serving fake marketing holiday, National Drive-Thru Day, which is celebrated every July 24.

McDonald’s didn’t have a drive-thru until 1975. The fast food brand most closely associated with the drive-thru—and fast food in general, for that matter—had no drive-thru until 1975, when the company’s first was launched in Sierra Vista, Ariz. By that time, McDonald’s already had 3,000 restaurants worldwide and was opening locations in Nicaragua, the Bahamas, and Hong Kong.

Drive-thru design heavily influences what we order. Those appetizing photos of combo meals are prominently featured on drive-thru menu boards for a reason: They are there to upsell customers and make the ordering process simpler—and quicker—according to restaurant experts. Photos distill the components of an order faster than even the briefest of descriptions, and pictures of combo orders are generally placed dead center on well-lit drive-thru menus because that’s usually where the customer’s eye goes first. Restaurants even find some benefit in making drive-thru customers wait a bit in line, with the so-called “car stack” of three or four vehicles allowing each party ample time to take in what’s on the menu and be better prepared for placing orders quickly. The next drive-thru innovation could very well be touchscreen ordering, which allows customers to personalize orders without occupying the time of a restaurant employee; as a bonus to eateries, consumers tend to place higher-priced orders when using touchscreens.

Wendy’s has quickest service, Chick-fil-A is most accurate. While the data changes a bit from year to year, the 2012 drive-thru study indicated that the average wait time for a Wendy’s order was just 130 seconds, the quickest in the field and more than one minute faster than Burger King. Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A was tops in terms of accuracy, getting 92% of orders correct. Overall order accuracy among all drive-thrus in the 2014 study was measured at 87%; Burger King accuracy was only 82%.

Drive-thrus are increasingly important to Starbucks. Starbucks is known mostly as a spot for enjoying the unrushed (read: slow) café experience, but nowadays 40% of Starbucks locations have drive-thrus for speedy on-the-go “refueling” transactions. What’s more, Starbucks CFO Troy Alstead has said that going forward, 60% of new Starbucks opened will have drive-thrus. Having largely exhausted the potential to expand further into downtown locations where drive-thrus would be problematic or impossible, Starbucks is placing an emphasis on “off-highway kinds of locations” and “some of the remote areas around the country,” Alstead said, to reach out to new customers. It certainly doesn’t hurt that drive-thrus allow Starbucks coffee shops to speed up service, thereby serving more people and hiking per-store profits. “We have fantastic economics through our drive-thrus,” said Alstead. “We’re providing a great experience to our customers who are on the go, they’re moving fast, they want that ability to stay in their car and experience Starbucks at the same time.”

Panera studied drive-thrus for 10 years before opening one. The fast-casual restaurant category, which has become a phenomenal success due to its mix of speedy service, customizable orders, and fresher and higher-quality fare, has been fairly reluctant to pull up to the drive-thru, so to speak. Why? One reason is the fear that the drive-thru cheapens the experience figuratively and literally, the latter because orders taken away in the car are prone to getting soggy or are otherwise less appealing than food fresh eaten on the spot. Panera Bread, one of the earliest players in the fast-casual space, reportedly studied drive-thru options for a decade before finally introducing one in 2005. That was only after the company settled on a design that would hide drive-thru operations from the regular counter-serve customers (they didn’t want to disturb or distract anyone), and after developing special packaging that ensure “food integrity” in drive-thru orders.

Chipotle is a drive-thru holdout, and may never give in. Experts in the field have said that a drive-thru would destroy the Chipotle experience, in which customers look at employees face-to-face, eyeball all the ingredients in front of them, and customize exactly what they want in their burrito or bowl. The question of if or when it will add a drive-thru comes up again and again, but thus far Chipotle hasn’t gone there. And based on how successful Chipotle has been without offering drive-thru service, it hardly seems to need it.

MONEY Food & Drink

7 Reasons Our Coffee Habit Is Costing More These Days

dollar sign made out of coffee beans
Andrew Unangst—Getty Images

In a relatively short period of time, the American coffee habit has gotten a lot more expensive.

Monday, September 29, is National Coffee Day, when restaurant and coffee chains around the country are giving out free (or extremely cheap) cups of Joe to the masses. The day is quite the exception, however, given how as a nation we are spending more and more on coffee.

Here are 7 reasons why:

We’re drinking coffee earlier in life. A study published this year by S&D Coffee & Tea shows that on average, younger millennials start drinking coffee at age 15, while older millennials picked up the habit at 17. Typical members of Gen X, meanwhile, started drinking coffee at 19.

More of us drink coffee regularly. U.S. coffee consumption rose 5% in 2013, according to a National Coffee Association survey, meaning that today 83% of the adult population drinks coffee; 75% have coffee at least once a week.

And we’re drinking higher-priced coffee at that. Data from 2014 shows that 34% of Americans drink gourmet coffee daily, an increase of 3% over last year. Young people in particular are willing to pay higher prices for coffee: In a new PayPal poll, 18% of people age 18 to 34 said they are willing to pay more than $3 per cup, compared with just 8% of those age 50 to 64.

We eat breakfast outside the home more often. Our fast-moving, on-the-go culture has been blamed as a reason for declining sales of cereal and milk, as more Americans are skipping the traditional breakfast at home and opting for foods that can be eaten on the run, like Pop Tarts and fast food via the drive-thru. In fact, breakfast has become enormously important to quick-serve restaurants because it’s the one mealtime experiencing strong growth lately. Coffee purchased at a restaurant or on the go at a convenience store or café is always more expensive than coffee brewed and drunk at home.

One word: Keurig. “In 2002, the average price of a coffee maker was about $35,” a recent post at the Northwestern Kellogg School of Management blog stated. “By 2013, that number had risen to around $90.” Truth be told, it’s still easy to find a coffee maker for $35 or even less, it’s just that the type of machine—the traditional kind that brews ground coffee by the pot—is no longer typical. It’s been replaced by the pricier single-cup brewer that came into the mainstream over the last decade thanks to the Keurig company. For many consumers, the speed and convenience of such machines outweighs the premium one must pay beyond the plain old-fashioned coffee maker. Some 1.7 million single-cup Keurig brewers were sold in the second quarter of 2014, an increase of 200,000 over the same period a year before.

Plus, K-Cups themselves are pricier. It’s not just the single-cup machines that cost more—the cups themselves do too. The price per single-serve K-Cup pod varies widely depending on the style of roast, whether you’re buying a small pack or stocking up in bulk, and how strategically you shop for deals. But no matter how good you are at snagging deals, you’ll almost always pay more for coffee pods than you will for old-fashioned ground or whole bean coffee. One price-comparison study conducted a couple of years ago indicated that K-Cup coffee cost more than $50 per pound, roughly four times the cost of a bag of Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts beans. What’s more, K-Cups are subject to a 9% across-the-board price hike in early November. (Side note: Mother Jones and others have pointed out that single-use K-Cups cost more and are worse for the environment than recyclable pod filters, though Keurig Green Mountain has plans to make all K-Cup pods fully recyclable by 2020.)

All coffee is simply getting more expensive. A long-lasting drought in Brazil (the world’s biggest producer of coffee beans) has pushed global coffee prices to near-record highs, and the market may be affected for years to come. Already this year, java junkies have faced price hikes from coffee brands such as Starbucks, Folgers, Maxwell House, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Interestingly, even as coffee has gotten more expensive and economic growth hasn’t exactly been sizzling in recent years, Starbucks sales have outpaced lower-priced competitors Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s. What does that show us? For the most part, coffee lovers are passionate about their caffeinated beverages and aren’t going to trade down to what they view as an inferior cup of Joe, even if doing so would save a couple of bucks here and there.

TIME Food & Drink

The 8 Craziest Coffee Drinks You Can Buy Now

Coffee drink latte
Getty Images

The sweetest, booziest and weirdest ways to get your caffeine fix

Long gone are the days when grabbing some coffee involved, well, simply grabbing some coffee. Today’s java landscape is dotted with half-this and iced-that and frappés and mocha lattes (you gotta do pilates) — and it seems the assortment of caffeinated confections is only getting crazier.

Here, a look at some of the most decadent confections being sold today.

1. Guinness-flavored latte

Forget about the beloved pumpkin spice latte, because Starbucks is taking things to a whole new level with its Dark Barrel Latte, which mimics the taste of Guinness (without the alcohol.) The chain recently began testing this new beverage at select locations, so we’ll have to wait and see if it makes it to the official Starbucks menu.

Where to get it: Select Starbucks locations in Florida and Ohio (possibly nationwide in the future)

2. Elephant poop coffee

Yes, really. Deemed the world’s most expensive brew, Black Ivory Coffee is made from Arabica beans from Thailand that first pass through an elephant’s digestive system and are then harvested from the resulting dung. The process brings out the natural sugar in the bean while removing the bitterness, supposedly resulting in a uniquely delicious cup of joe.

Where to get it: Select five-star hotels across Asia, and just one U.S. location in Texas; Beans available online for $779 (with a grinder) or $664 (without a grinder)

3. Coffee in edible waffle cups

Everyone knows the best way to consume soup is in a bread bowl — because when you finish the soup, you get to eat its container! — and one California coffeehouse has applied this concept to its beverages. Customers can order their espressos and macchiatos in edible waffle cups tripled-dipped in chocolate, so when they’re finished with their caffeine boost, they can enjoy a sweet coffee-soaked snack. Perfection.

Where to get it: Alfred Coffee & Kitchen in Los Angeles

4. Affogato

Ice cream or gelato. Topped with a shot of hot espresso. That’s it. Simple, pure bliss.

Where to get it: Many Italian restaurants and cafes will make this drink for you, or you can make one at home

5. Koffie Van Brunt

This decadent, boozy concoction is served at Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance and contains aged rum, Cherry Heering, coffee, and cream. As TimeOut New York once noted, the “swirling layer of ivory white cream, burnished brown java and bright orange zest makes this drink as pretty to look at as it is tasty to sip.”

Where to get it: Fort Defiance in Brooklyn, NY, or make it at home with this recipe

6. The Vincent Vega

This confection — essentially a coffee-spiked Coca-Cola — is named after Jon Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction, who memorably ordered a vanilla Coke with his steak. The drink, available at The Mission in San Francisco, includes Coca-Cola, a shot of espresso, vanilla syrup, served over ice.

Where to get it: Any of The Mission’s three locations in San Francisco

7. Coffee Beer Repeat

Can’t decide if you’re in the mood to take the edge off with a beer or add a little edge with coffee? At Houndstooth, a coffee shop in downtown Austin, you don’t have to make that difficult decision. You can simply order the Coffee Beer Repeat. It’s considered one drink, but really, it’s just two pints of beer and two shots of espresso all served separately. You can get them in whichever order you want and space them out as you choose.

Where to get it: Houndstooth in Austin, or you can make it pretty easily at home

8. Toasted Marshmallow Latte

Like a warm, toasty campfire in a cup, this concoction includes espresso, steamed milk and a roasted marshmallow on a stick. Yes, an ACTUAL ROASTED MARSHMALLOW. On a stick.

Where to get it: Big Shoulders Coffee in Chicago

TIME Food & Drink

Starbucks Is Testing a Drink That Tastes Like Guinness (Without the Alcohol)

Operations Inside A Starbucks Corp. Coffee Shop
Jason Alden—Bloomberg / Getty Images

It's called the Dark Barrel Latte and comes topped with whipped cream and dark caramel sauce

If you’re already panicking about what you’re going to drink once Starbucks stops selling its beloved seasonal pumpkin spice latte, don’t worry, because the chain is now testing out a brand new flavor. This one, though, is not meant to evoke the feelings of strolling through a pumpkin patch in a pair of Ugg boots on a crisp autumn Saturday. Not at all. This one is meant to taste like a nice dark Irish stout.

The new drink, called the Dark Barrel Latte, is being tested at select locations across Ohio and Florida, Grubstreet reports. It doesn’t contain any alcohol, but it supposedly contains the dark, toasty, malty flavors of Guinness. A BuzzFeed writer who got his hands on one in Columbus confirmed that it really does taste like stout. Several customers who’ve tweeted about the drink agree that it tastes like Guinness — but the jury’s still out on whether or not that’s actually a good thing.

When I asked a colleague who was born and raised in Dublin (Guinness’s birthplace) how he felt about all this, he responded first with this GIF. Then, as he mulled it over a bit more, he added, “Holy hell. Worst.” Then he posed a question: “American Guinness already doesn’t taste like Guinness. So what will this taste like?” Then he barfed all over me and my stupid American ignorance.

TIME autumn

16 Drinks That Would Be Better Than a Pumpkin Spice Latte

Pumpkin Spice Latte
Starbucks

It's time to walk back from the Peak Pumpkin ledge

There is a specter haunting America — the specter of the pumpkin spice latte, henceforth referred to as the PSL.

It’s like The Walking Dead up in here, but instead of zombies, every other person, bros and basics alike, is a Starbucks PSL drone. You can’t wear so much as a flannel scarf out of the house without fending off wild-eyed PSL lovers raving about the onset of autumn and the arrival of PSL season.

We used to call it football season, people. This used to be football season.

But lest you take comfort in the oddity of human nature — “oh what cute goofs we can be with our whims” and so forth — know this: the success of the PSL is no accident. It’s a covert campaign on the part of a multinational corporation to pervert your affinity for the holiday season into a manufactured desire for a (gross) beverage, and in so doing subvert the most American of all holidays, Thanksgiving. Yes, I’m talking about a secret army of un-American zombie drone PSL drinkers.

All this hysteria despite the fact that a Starbucks PSL tastes like neither pumpkin nor pumpkin pie (nor for that matter anything that could reasonably be called “pumpkin spice,” whatever that means) and have about as much to do with an actual pumpkin as a cat.

If a PSL doesn’t have to taste even remotely like an actual pumpkin then neither does my hypothetical and far more interesting Beet Spice Latte have to taste like a real beet. And if we’re going to have these abominable pumpkin impostors foisted upon us, I demand additional options. (Aside: pumpkin flavored beer walks a thin line but gets a pass because this is my list and I can make it how I want).

Here, via free association, are fall-inspired lattes I would rather have right now than a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte:

Brussels Sprout Spice Latte

Celery Root Spice Latte

Potato Spice Latte

Turnip Spice Latte

Horseradish Spice Cappuccino (feels a little aggressive without the foam)

Hay Spice Latte

Hayride Spice Latte (Hay, dirt, upset stomach bile)

Halloween Spice Latte (candy, fear)

Candy Corn Spice Latte (sugar, sugar, sugar)

Cavity Spice Latte (flouride, antiseptic, other unidentifiable dentist-related tastes)

Dental Insurance Spice Latte (paper)

Job Spice Latte (stale coffee, lunch at desk)

Toil Spice Latte (sweat)

Political Campaign Spice Latte (beer, fried everything, rubber chicken)

John Boehner Spice Latte (not going there)

Etc.

Do you see now where this road leads, pumpkin spice lovers? Nowhere good.

Now we can all call a truce and switch back to real pumpkins. Or better yet, try an apple. You don’t even need a scientist to manufacture apple “spice” this time. Apples are delicious on their own!

MONEY Shopping

What Has the World Come to When Dunkin’ Goes Dark and Guinness Goes Light?

Guinness Blonde
courtesy of Diageo

Guinness, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Dunkin' Donuts are trying to win over new customers by taking a sharp break from their core mission. They should be worried about alienating their core customers in the process.

Everywhere you look, it seems, there’s a major brand introducing a new product, service, or store model that’s more or less the opposite of what the company is best known for. Taco Bell, famous for cheap, indulgent, down-and-dirty Mexican food, is trying to woo foodies with an upscale “premium” taco restaurant. Starbucks, which became a phenomenon for its personalized, barista-made (and slow) approach to rich, dark caffeinated beverages, recently announced plans for a series of small express stores where the focus will be on speedy takeout rather than the laid-back café experience. JetBlue, born with the principle that all passengers should get the same high-quality service, introduced a VIP business class called “Mint” over the summer. Wal-Mart, the blue-collar favorite that has always focused first and foremost on cheap prices, has dramatically expanded into a realm normally considered the domain of elites and picky foodies: organic foods.

And now Dunkin’ Donuts, a stalwart purveyor of light, sweet, mainstream coffee, is introducing a dark roast blend, while also playing up to niche dieters by adding almond milk to the menu. Meanwhile, the rich, dark, iconic Irish stout Guinness is going in the other direction with a light new Blonde American Lager.

For some, Guinness’s move is tantamount to sacrilege—if not for selling out its Irish roots with a beer for the “American” audience (that’s made in the U.S. too), then for producing the lighter beer itself, which few have tasted but some have compared to Bud Light—in certain respects anyway.

Why are Guinness and these other brands risking the possibility of alienating their core customers? What’s behind this trend of straying in the opposite direction from what made these companies successful to begin with? Do these moves represent a smart expansion of the brand or an identity crisis? The answers largely depend on whether consumers deem the new products and services as brilliant and appealing or as puzzling, weird, and perhaps even desperate.

Dr. Edward Tauber, who coined the term “brand extension” in 1979, told AdWeek that the best brand extenders have three things in common: “The brand should be a logical fit with the parent brand; the parent should give the extension an edge in the new category; and the extension should have the potential to generate significant sales.”

Some might argue that the efforts mentioned above aren’t logical expansions for the parent company. They may even turn off some regular customers. But expanding a brand in the opposite direction—while remaining in the same product category—is a lot more logical than heading off in some random, nonsensical fashion. You may not be keen on Guinness’s brand being applied to a light beer for Americans, but at least pale lagers and dark stouts are both beer. When Heineken introduced a brand of shoes, AdWeek voters listed it among the worst brand extensions of 2013.

When Dunkin’ Donuts announced the addition of a dark roast, the reaction was more It’s about time than What in the world are they thinking? “We saw an unmet demand for a dark roast product that had a bold flavor but a smoothness that’s often associated with Dunkin’ Original Blend,” John Costello, Dunkin’ Brands’ president of global marketing and innovation, quite logically explained to the Wall Street Journal regarding DD’s new dark roast.

Today’s executives aren’t satisfied simply by reaching a large group of customers with a stable set of tried-but-true products and services. In our fast-moving, constantly changing marketplace, brands feel compelled to hunt, relentlessly and shark-like, for the business of every consumer, at every opportunity.

For decades, the majority of fast food chains were content to do the vast majority of their business during the lunch and dinner hours. Then someone realized that formula was writing off plenty of hours of the day in terms of sales potential. Hence, the increased marketing of fast food “snacks,” meant to be consumed in the odd “day parts” in between normal meal breaks, as well as late-night specials and a huge push for breakfast

Similarly, a few years back Starbucks realized that it was overlooking a huge market by sticking exclusively with darker roasts—40% of coffee drinkers prefer lighter, milder roasts—so the Blonde roast was introduced to fuel growth among folks who otherwise wouldn’t be Starbucks customers. Thanks partly to its ability to expand the customer base, Starbucks seems to be winning the coffee wars, with same-store sales growth that’s surpassed competitors like Dunkin’ Donuts.

Wal-Mart’s organic foods push is an indication that the world’s largest retailer had gotten tired of allowing Whole Foods to dominate the space. The expansion into healthier foods wouldn’t seem to be all that controversial—Wal-Mart promised shoppers that they’d save 25% or more compared to similar products—yet even this move is not without risk. During the mid-’00s and beyond, Walmart was criticized for betraying blue-collar shoppers by raising prices and getting rid of “rollback” specials in an attempt to keep pace with Target and other, more upscale competitors. What’s more, there’s a significant portion of consumers who aren’t fans of organic foods. According to a recent Gallup poll, 15% of Americans say they “actively try to avoid” organic foods. Why? Perhaps because they assume such foods cost more or don’t taste good. And it’s safe to assume folks who feel this way are far more likely to shop at Wal-Mart than at Whole Foods.

MONEY Fast Food

WATCH: Starbucks Goes Big and Small With Two New Store Plans

Starbucks says it will open upscale tasting rooms for its limited Starbucks Reserve line, plus smaller stores focused on speed and convenience.

TIME food and drink

Starbucks Plans New ‘Tasting Room’ and Express Stores

Megachain hopes to expand its pricier, small-batch coffee line

Starbucks is about to get fancier — and even more widespread.

The coffee giant announced plans Friday to open a Starbucks Roastery and Tasting Room on its home turf in Seattle by December, a move it hopes will anchor a significant expansion of its business and “transform the future of coffee.”

“Everything we have created and learned about coffee has led us to this moment,” CEO Howard Schultz said in a statement.

The 15,000-square-foot facility — which will highlight what the company calls “coffee theater” — will be an “integrated coffee roasting, education and retail space” that will allow it to ramp up production capacity for its small-batch “Starbucks Reserve” coffee line. That, in turn, will boost its availability to 1,500 locations worldwide.

Starbucks plans to open at least 100 new stores to highlight those coffee options and also test out express stores that will offer fewer products in a bid to lower customer wait times.

So, fear not: Beverage innovation is here.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

In Defense of the Pumpkin Spice Latte

Pumpkin Spice Latte
Getty Images

A chemist defends the lack of pumpkin in fall's favorite drink

When the clock strikes September, your cup of coffee turns into a pumpkin.

A pumpkin spice latte, that is. There is a difference—an important one, when you consider the recent mini uproar surrounding the “revelation” that Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte (nationally available since yesterday) doesn’t contain actual pumpkin.

Anyone who’s sipped a PSL, as it’s known on social media, probably could have guessed this. The drink tastes nothing like the earthy squash that is actual pumpkin, and has none of the nutritional benefits, either. Pumpkin, in its whole-food state, is a nutritional bonanza. A cooked, mashed cup of it has 141% of your daily vitamin A and 12% of both your daily potassium and fiber.

Pumpkin spice flavoring, instead, has natural and artificial flavors. What are those, exactly, and why is there no pumpkin?

Kantha Shelke, a food scientist with a background in organic chemistry and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, gets questions like this all the time. “This conversation about chemicals in food requires a certain amount of responsibility, which I think some of these elitist writers and bloggers and speakers have somehow forgotten,” she says of the backlash against pumpkin spice flavoring. “I think it’s very irresponsible to be ignorant to such a level as to lead others astray and tell them to eat chemical-free food.” After all, she says, water and salt are chemicals.

So is the stuff in your PSL. There’s no pumpkin in it because it’s pumpkin spice, and not pumpkin, that’s the star. The coffee flavorings are designed to resemble cooked pumpkin spice: a blend of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. It’s supposed to taste like the spicy components of a homemade pumpkin pie, not actual pumpkin.

But DIY’ers, take heed: you can’t just dump a packet of pumpkin spice mix into a mug of espresso and expect it to pass for a PSL. It would be absolutely awful,” says Shelke. The spice mix you get in the grocery store is specifically formulated to be mixed with butter and eggs and baked. Achieving that flavor of a fresh pie, minus the butter and heat, is no easy task, because pumpkin spice mix contains at least 340 compounds, Shelke estimates. But luckily, all of those aren’t necessary for your taste buds to get the message. “The brain, which is largely responsible for how we identify whether a certain mixture of compounds is a flavor and where the flavor comes from, doesn’t need all the compounds that exist in nature,” Shelke says. Just as your brain doesn’t need vowels to understand a word, certain compounds can fill in the flavor blanks for your brain. Starbucks isn’t soaking your PSL in chemicals, she says—they’re using the minimum number of compounds they need to reach that signature flavor.

These flavor compounds are synthesized in a lab—a process that also occurs outside in nature, Shelke adds–and tested for safety. But the word synthetic in this country today has become vilified,” she says.There should not be such a fear of derivatives of molecules and chemicals that are part of nature.”

We need these chemicals, she says, because it’s not sustainable to harvest the enormous amounts of ginger, cinnamon, or cloves needed to match our appetite for pumpkin spice lattes. “I don’t believe there’s enough cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger if all of India or all of China decided today that they were going to have a pumpkin spice latte,” she says.

If ever there were a sinister side to pumpkin spice lattes, it would be the sugar. One pump of pumpkin sauce contains 8 grams of sugar, Starbucks says, so a grande pumpkin spice latte, with three pumps of syrup, has 24 grams of sugar just from the flavoring, and 49 grams total. (That may be a better reason to avoid the stuff than if you’re bothered by the “natural and artificial flavors.”)

Despite her PR passion for chemicals, Shelke doesn’t drink flavored coffee. But that’s because she’s a bit of a flavor snob; her sense of smell is so good that she can tell which flavors are missing. When I ask Shelke for her review of the pumpkin spice latte, she admits she’s never tried one. “I cannot get past the aroma,” she admits, which to her smells far too rich. “I’m very puritanical in my approach.”

But for the rest of us, including the Pumpkin Spice Latte’s 90,000 Twitter followers, it’s less the actual flavors we taste than the aura that envelops the beverage. “The pumpkin spice aroma combination has more to do with the anticipation and the festive mood it sets you in than the actual taste of the spice mix,” Shelke says. “That’s really all that these beverages are trying to do, to take you back there.” But the only way to get there, she argues, is through chemicals. The humble orange squash just isn’t up for the task.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser