It’s nearing the end of August and fall is just around the corner, which can only mean a few things: cooler temperatures, changing leaves, and pumpkin spice flavored, well, everything. Of the numerous products available in this beloved, seasonal flavor, the cornerstone item we can all expect to see this fall is the Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks. This time, with a few modifications.
On August 17th, Starbucks announced that it will now be using real pumpkin as an ingredient in their syrup for the product and removing the caramel coloring from the recipe. I did a little investigating as to why Starbucks made this change.
In recent years, consumers have become more and more interested in what goes into their food. This is great as all people deserve access to the best possible information on what they’re eating. However, consumers are not always fed with the correct facts about their food and rely on sources that may not be credible, instilling fear and anger and causing unneeded concern about foods and ingredients that may not have cause for concern.
One of the main reasons Starbucks has decided to remove their caramel coloring from their product was brought about by a concern from consumers that the ingredient is highly carcinogenic. This concern was propagated online and due to supply and demand Starbucks decided to change their product to please their consumers, just as they would with adding new products, varieties, and other options. However, the removal of the caramel coloring ingredient can persuade consumers to think that the ingredient was removed because it’s bad, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The main point of concern for caramel coloring (which is used in a variety of products from soda to bread) is a byproduct of its production. Caramel coloring is made similarly to how caramel candy or syrup is made: sugar is heated to product a stereotypic caramel color, taste, and smell. During this process, a compound called 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) is produced, which has been classified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a group 2B carcinogen meaning that it is “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. Many other common foods and ingredients also have this designation, such as coffee.
4-MEI is formed during many normal cooking processes such as the roasting of coffee beans and meats. It is virtually impossible to avoid and occurs when cooking at home as well. The National Toxicity Program has conducted numerous studies on the carcinogenicity of 4-MEI. Some studies show no conclusive evidence that 4-MEI is carcinogenic and one showed an increase in lung tumors in mice in levels that far exceed any level of 4-MEI that humans would ever be exposed to. Even so, 4-MEI is still in group 2B simply because it is impossible to know 100% its effects on humans at all levels. The FDA has also set limits on how much 4-MEI a product can contain, as with any ingredient. Limits are set many times lower than a threshold that could potentially harm a person. This allows the FDA to ensure consumers’ safety.
In a world where food is increasing as a hotbed of discussion, it is fantastic that consumers strive to be more aware of their meal choices and health; however, due to the wealth of misinformation floating around the internet, consumers are growing afraid of food products when there may be no cause for concern. While growing interest in health can only be beneficial to the health of our communities, it would be amazing to see the same concern in consumers for the millions of people in the world who do not have enough to eat, or to see consumers rally behind a product or company that is seeking to do so much good as in the case of Kuli Kuli’s work with moringa. When compared to the nutritional content and promise of a better life that moringa brings to consumers in the U.S. and farmers in Ghana and Hati, the concern over a latte seems a little silly.
About the Author:
Originally from South Dakota, Katie graduated with a degree in food science from the University of Minnesota in May and is now starting her career as a contract technologist at a major food company. She is interested in anything that has to do with food: where it comes from, how it’s made, and how its production affects the planet. She believes in a hybrid between the conventional food industry and more organic industry of recent years, and feels strongly on the need to bridge the gap between science and the public through writing. As an avid cook and reader, Katie enjoys a wide variety of literature and trying out new recipes. Some of her favorite things in life include hiking, Starbucks, and cats.
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