Go ahead, drink your Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte!

People love Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. A lot. This beverage has its own twitter account with nearly 78,000 followers. When Starbucks announced they would start selling this seasonal beverage early, people lost their damn minds. Quite honestly, the love some people have for the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte is… troubling… but I’m not one not judge.

But you know who is judge-y? Food Babe (a.k.a. Vani Hari) and Jezebel.  In posts sure to anger and/or terrify Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte enthusiasts everywhere, Hari and Jezebel lay out why you should be scared of your latte.  Hari and  Jezebel even pull out the BIG C…

From Hari’s post:

Jezebel’s post seems to summarize this with “…Class IV Caramel Color, a common food additive that’s being investigated by the FDA, is illegal in high doses and has been shown to increase the risk of lung cancer and leukemia in mice, regardless of dosage.”


Well, damn. Looks like Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Lattes are off the menu.

Except… what’s this? A Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Q&A on caramel food coloring and 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI)?  It’s a quick read, so I urge you pop over here and read it.  I’ve collected the bits I found most interesting below.

  • 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) is a chemical compound that is not directly added to food; rather it is formed as a byproduct in some foods and beverages during the normal cooking process…. 4-MEI also forms as a trace impurity during the manufacturing of certain types of caramel coloring (known as Class III and Class IV caramel coloring) that are used to color cola-type beverages and other foods.
  • Based on the available information, FDA has no reason to believe that there is any immediate or short-term danger presented by 4-MEI at the levels expected in food from the use of caramel coloring.
  • In 2007, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) issued a report summarizing the results of toxicological testing conducted on 4-MEI in rats and mice. A 2-year study in rats was inconclusive regarding carcinogenicity, but a 2-year mouse study showed an increased incidence of certain lung tumors. These NTP studies were conducted in rodents at levels of 4-MEI that far exceed current estimates of human exposure to 4-MEI from the consumption of Class III and Class IV caramel coloring in food products such as colas.
  • To ensure that the use of caramel coloring in food continues to be safe, FDA is currently reviewing all available data on the safety of 4-MEI and is reassessing potential consumer exposure to 4-MEI from the use of Class III and Class IV caramel coloring in food products… However, in the interim, FDA is not recommending that consumers change their diets because of concerns about 4-MEI.
  • The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) assessed the risk to 4-MEI from the use of caramel colors in 2011 and concluded that human exposure to 4-MEI in Europe was well below the threshold level reflected in the NTP study. In 2012, EFSA re-evaluated the consumer exposure to 4-MEI from the use of caramel colors, and reaffirmed its 2011 conclusion. EFSA also noted that 4-MEI does not appear to cause DNA mutations (genotoxicity) and that the type of tumors observed in the mice from the NTP study can occur spontaneously in these animals. For these reasons, EFSA concluded that they had no concerns about Europeans being exposed to 4-MEI from the use of caramel coloring in food.

My conclusion upon reading the FDA Q&A… I’ll be enjoying a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. Hell, I’ll order two – one for each hand. With extra pumpkin spice syrup.


Leading image from Starbucks

David Tennant images from Mashable and Reaction Gifs



DrRubidium is an analytical chemist that spends her days finding needles in needlestacks. Also a science communicator, she focuses on the the science behind everyday stuff and pop culture.

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  1. Thank You! Every time I hear one of these “Corporation X uses SCARY SOUNDING CHEMICAL that’s been shown to cause HORRIBLE SOUNDING THING to mice” I roll my eyes in disbelief. Water kills at a high enough dosage as does any thing you injest. If it was studied and big corporations are still selling it, it’s probably safe. Corporations want your money, not a bunch of law suits.

  2. I guess it all depends on whether you identify as a rat or as a mouse.
    In this case, I prefer to be a rat.

  3. My issue with the pumpkin spice latte is that apparently some stores use a flavor syrup made with sweetened condensed milk – so even if you get it made with soy milk it contains dairy. As someone who actively avoids dairy, I am disappointed that Food Babe was the first I’ve heard of that.

  4. This post has big words that I don’t know how to pronounce. Are you trying to poison me through the internet?!

  5. We are discussing on twitter who should try to tell the FudBabe that there are actually a whole bunch of *naturally occurring* pesticides in the actual roasted coffee beans. I would love to see Bruce Ames do it…

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