Starbucks has divided the world of coffee enthusiasts into two categories: those who actually want cake but feel bad about eating cake first thing in the morning so they drink dessert coffee instead, and those who want artisanal pour-overs (no room for cream). Still, even those who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Starbucks in June can’t get to one fast enough in the fall, when everyone drops their pretensions for the pumpkin spice latte.
Yes folks, it’s time. Starting September 6th, the sugary, salty, and incredibly fatty drink will officially flood our social media feeds. We know it’s about 10 decibels too sweet to be anything but unhealthy, yet the PSL just will not die. What gives? Really smart marketing and the science of a perfectly engineered brain bomb.
Sure, it has caffeine, which is kind of habit forming. But the most important elements here are a heap of concentrated sugar, a bunch of warm, frothy milk fat, and a pinch of salt to get the dopamine flowing. A grande (16 oz) serving holds a whopping 40 percent of your daily value of saturated fat. Add to that 240 mg of sodium (10 percent your daily value) and 50 grams of sugar (of which there’s no recommended daily value), and you get a reaction in your brain that mimics the rush from certain addictive drugs.
A study out of Duke University in 2011 found that salt alone can trigger the same nerve cells in the hypothalamus of a rat’s brain as elicit drugs like cocaine or heroine, flooding the brain with an intense dopamine rush that hits the system immediately, even before the blood can fully absorb it.
Then there’s the sugar. Last year, researchers out of the University of Michigan found that processed foods with high doses of carbohydrates that are absorbed quickly by the body (so, sugar) are closely related to food addiction. “The research is very clear in terms of what happens in the brain when you get this rush of sugar,” says Dan Henroid, a dietician who runs the food programs at the University of California, San Francisco hospital. “Especially when it’s in pure, liquid form without enough fiber to help your body absorb it slowly over time, it makes it very easy to get that high.”
The hospital has even seen an increase in non-alcohol-related liver disease as a result of people getting large doses of sugar. (UCSF phased out all sugar-sweetened beverages from its cafes and vending machines last year.)
And food addiction is a problem in itself. The Yale Food Addiction Scale, which the Michigan researchers used in their study, establishes eight levels, from the moment you’re hooked to when you’re emptying your pockets on the street corner in desperation. The first level of addiction is defined as consuming something in ever-increasing quantity and frequency. Level five is when you’re aware that something is bad for you but you keep eating it anyways (sound familiar, seasonal PSL devotees?).
A number of studies have highlighted the connection between food addiction and high doses of sugar, fat, and salt–a combo that appears in processed foods far more often than “natural” ones. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss and David Kessler, who helped run the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s, wrote that food companies mimic tobacco companies by creating foods with the addictive trifecta.
This year marks the 13th consecutive release of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, which Starbucks says is its most popular seasonal beverage of all time. The company wouldn’t say how much money it makes from the drink alone, but revenues increased 7 percent in the third quarter to a record $5.2 billion. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports it’s one of a few companies that are unexpectedly driving up the S&P 500 right now. Best sellers like the pumpkin latte are no doubt helping to fuel that growth, but of course there’s a variety of other cake-drinks available year-round padding the bottom line. Regardless of the season, you can have your fix and drink it, too.