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Pumpkin Spice Latte Addiction

Posted in Food Safety,Our Blog on September 20, 2018

Do you or someone you know have PSL Addiction?  This affliction often pulls new victims into its grasp this time of year?  Both effects and withdrawal symptoms could be compared to hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin.  What am I talking about?  The Pumpkin Spice Latte of course.  This year marks the 15th consecutive release of Starbuck’s most popular seasonal flavor.  It has stuck around for a reason.  In addition to hype, this beloved pastime has chemical properties that contribute to its addiction.

There is more truth to this satirical public service announcement than you might think.  Between the caffeine, sugar, and salt in the perfect ratio that sends even the not so “basic” of the population running to the nearest Starbucks, something dark and addictive lies.

Habit Forming Drink Tips the Scales of Percent Daily Value

Inside that sweet, orange elixir resides a significant portion of your daily intake of fat, sodium, and sugar.  This trifecta mimics the addictive properties used in tobacco products, says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss and David Kessler, who helped run the United States Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s.

Sizing up that cheerful Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL), a grande serving of 16 ounces makes up almost half of the suggested daily value of saturated fat.  Not to mention the 240 mg of sodium they sneak into each serving. That is 10 percent of your daily value in case you were wondering.  While there is no recommended daily value for sugar, the PSL contains 50 grams.  This combination combines to elicit a reaction in your brain akin to those of certain illicit drugs.  This cocktail of chemicals is not found in the PSL by happenstance.  Each aspect of the warm, frothy beverage is designed to enhance the senses and keep you coming back for more.

But Addiction?

That doesn’t addictive.  Does it?  A 2011 Duke University study indicates that salt, just the salt content itself, can trigger the same nerve cells found in the hypothalamus. These cells light up when consuming cocaine or heroine (in rat subjects of course).  This causes a flood of dopamine to rush the brain before the blood can even fully absorb it.

A 2015 study at the University of Michigan found that processed foods (more so than natural foods) containing high amounts of carbohydrates are absorbed more quickly by the body.  This is why food addiction has a higher associating with processed foods.  “The research is very clear in terms of what happens in the brain when you get this rush of sugar,” explains Dan Henroid, a dietician who heads 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.”  Perhaps not directly linked to the PSL, but consumer habits in general, the hospital has even noted an increase in non-alcohol-related liver disease from people consuming large doses of sugar.  How large?  Maybe multiple PSL’s a day large.

Food Addiction is Real.  The Caffeine Effect.

Food addiction is indeed a real thing.  This can come in the form of fixating on one food (or beverage in the case of my PSL addicted friends and co-workers) or food in general.  The Yale Food Addiction Scale (referred to as the Yale Scale) is an industry standard to establish food addiction standards used by the Michigan researchers (and other researchers) in this study.  This Scale consists of 8 levels that start at the moment someone is hooked to the level of “emptying your pockets on the street corner in desperation.”  Level 1 is defined by increasing the quantity and frequency in which something is consumed.  Level 5 is reached when someone knows that the food is bad for you but choose to keep eating it.

You’d think the addictive component of the PSL would be the caffeine content, right?  Whether Pumpkin Spice related or not, caffeine is a major part of many of our lives.  While not directly listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) the go-to standard for doctors and government agencies on all things mental health, it gets an honorable mention.  The substances included that could potentially lead to a mild or severe “substance use disorder” currently include: alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamines, hallucinogens such as LSD, and opioids.  It is possible to see this happy little molecule in future additions. Caffeine is currently listed in a category named “Conditions for Further Study.”  Keep it up PSL drinkers…  Your category is coming.

Sugar Adds to the Addiction

The DSM-5’s criteria was adapted for the Yale Scale. The DSM-5 does not list sugar or fat food addictions. This means that the same 11 questions used to indicated behaviors over the last 12 months in the DSM-5 are used in the Yale Scale.  Though the Yale Scale actually includes 35 questions.  On the DSM scale, answering yes to 2 of the 11 questions indicates a mild use disorder.  The more yeses, the greater to sever the disorder.

While the DSM does not call caffeine a “substance use” disorder, it does mention it as a “substance related” disorder.  The DSM recognises the withdrawal symptoms following cessation of caffeine use. These include anxiety, irritability, fatigue, and nausea.

Worried About Your Consumption?

Should you drop the PSL right now?  Whether you are drinking because, “tis the season” or if “you just can’t even,” you are not alone. The Journal of Caffeine Research published a review, co-written by Johns Hopkins and the University of Vermont, which says:

Caffeine is the most commonly used drug in the world.  Although consumption of low to moderate doses of caffeine is generally safe, and increased number of clinical studies are showing that some caffeine users become dependent on the drug and are unable to reduce consumption despite knowledge of recurrent health problems associated with continued use.  The World Health Organization and some health care professionals recognize caffeine dependence as a clinical disorder.” 

Duke researchers wrote a review in 2014 indicating that:

“It may be difficult for some health professionals to accept that caffeine use can result in the same types of pathological behaviors caused by alcohol, cocaine, opiates, or other drug abuse.  Yet there is evidence that some individuals are psychologically and physiologically dependent on caffeine, although the prevalence and severity of these problems is unknown.”

As the saying goes, everything in moderation.  Enjoy that cherished warm insulated cup of the fall season.  Just make good choices the rest of the day.  I don’t imagine there are going to be PSL Anonymous groups popping up anytime soon.  Though you might find your peers among friends.

By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)