There was a noticeable chill in the air as I made my way through the bustling floors of East London’s Westfields shopping centre. Autumn was finally upon us; and nowadays nothing screams ‘autumn’ louder than pumpkin spiced lattes.
What is so special about the p-word that has got our morning coffee bills hitting the roof? In the commotion of Westfields shoppers, everywhere I looked there were bright orange signs for pumpkin this and pumpkin that. The humble pumpkin has moved far beyond mere pie fillings and Halloween lanterns. Since Starbucks came up with the pumpkin spiced latte back in 2003, it seems like the whole world has gone pumpkin-shaped.
Pumpkin spice is the signature flavour of the current season, complete with connotations of knitted sweaters and bonfires, and now imbued into a wide range of products such as candles, pop tarts, cookies, cereals, chips, shampoo, milk, pastas, vodka, nut spreads, beers, puddings – even dog food!
According to data published by the Nielsen, the market research company, Americans spent over $360 million on pumpkin-flavoured products in 2014, a 79 percent increase on 2011. And we Brits have not been slow to follow.
A young woman waiting in the same line as me, caught my attention after she let out a sudden yelp as the Starbucks barista handed over her afternoon fix. “Is that the pumpkin spiced latte?” I asked. Her smile stretched from ear to ear, as she confessed: “Pumpkin spiced lattes are my life”. Her eyes were sparkling. “I’ll have anything pumpkin spiced, it’s why I love Autumn,” she added, before turning away, beaming.
I just had to have some of what she was besotted by. But when my turn came it left me lukewarm. The first sip prompted a mere shrug on my part, and after that I gave the much prized latte away to a friend. Perhaps American tastebuds are more refined than mine; I couldn’t quite grasp the difference between a pumpkin spiced latte and a regular latte with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Sure, pumpkin spice is good, but let’s not forget chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and other classics which barely rate a mention right now. And now it’s a social-media phenomenon, with its own hashtag, #PSL, you know the drill: you must show interest in order to stay up with the trends. When your Instagram feed is filled with fashionably filtered pictures of your friends’ pumpkin spiced latte, at some point you’re going to have to get one, too.
Never mind the taste or the trending, now for the million-dollar question: does it do you any good? Well, on a health perspective, and I hate to break it to you, no. I doubt it will keep all of you whipped cream-extra-chocolate-sprinkle-coffee-drinkers up all night, but there is yet another health warning that I feel obliged to issue. It might be called ‘pumpkin spice’ but that doesn’t mean there’s a whole lot of pumpkin in it. This hardly counts as one of your five-a-day, and in some instances you may find no trace of pumpkin extract at all!
For all that, just like hot chocolate, leather boots, apple picking and crunchy leaves, pumpkin spice has become synonymous with autumn. And if, like me, you don’t care much for the drink, we can still agree to use pumpkins to scare the neighbour’s cat with.
I’ll raise a large latte to that.