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Oct 27, 2016 12:39PM

Spice is nice: Putting five pumpkiny drinks to the test

By Laura Anderson Shaw
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I cannot put into words how much I love coffee and fall. Once the temperature strikes 70 degrees, I'm ready for all things autumn, including pumpkin coffee in all of its forms — iced, hot, or otherwise. Pumpkin spice lattes, regular coffee with pumpkin spice creamer, I don't care — I'll drink it all.

For me, there's something nostalgic about the drink, especially in its pumpkin form. It reminds me of cozy sweaters and chilly days. It's comforting, it gets me going and it makes me happy.

Like many pumpkin coffee lovers, I have drank the Kool-Aid, or the Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte, as it were. I am head-over-heels obsessed with it. Many of my friends and family members balk at the price tag and the amount of sugar they pack, and prefer cheaper, healthier versions. I, however, treat myself to the expensive, sugary coffee drink once a week throughout the season, and maintain that Starbucks' version is the best when it comes to pumpkin coffees.

But recent discussions have caused some doubt. Do I like Starbucks because of its name or its product? Is there another nearby option that also would be a quick drive (or drive-thru) away, where perhaps the coffee wouldn't be any more nutritionally sound, but cheaper? I wanted to know, once and for all.

What a better way to answer these questions than to hold a super scientific taste test? I asked my unbiased co-workers to help, and we chose four coffee spots sort of near our homes and office that we figured may also be close to yours, and we threw in a make-it-yourself drink you can snag at Target for good measure.

We sat around our office's conference table, five piping hot drinks in the center: a Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks, a Pumpkin Pie Latte from Caribou Coffee, a Pumpkin Swirl Latte from Dunkin' Donuts, a Pumpkin Spice Latte from McDonald's and an Archer Farms Pumpkin Spice Latte Instant Coffee.

I poured each variety into smaller cups for our taste testers, and then, a chorus of "mmm," "yuck" and "hmm" ensued.

Just as I had suspected, five out of eight taste-testers (myself included) confirmed that the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte essentially was the favorite among the contenders (depending on how you shook out the responses).

Instantly, I breathed a sigh of relief. I now had confirmation that when I blow $5-plus on a coffee — the 12-ouncer we sampled was $4.25 before tax, but the 16-ouncer is my standard! — and more than double the amount of the American Heart Association's recommended daily added sugar limit for women, it at least is on the best of the best!

Of the three taste-testers who did not choose Starbucks as their favorite, only one didn't like it — and she doesn't like coffee. That tester did say, however, that "the pumpkin spice flavor was nice."

Other taste-testers say they would "definitely" buy it, and that the "color looks good — something I'd expect when I see (a) #basic girl walk down the street with this in hand."

Another says that it had a "light pumpkin flavor — (a) good balance of flavors."

Caribou's Pumpkin Pie Latte clocked in at $3.99 before tax for a small, and received some good, but mixed reviews, too. It definitely either tied with Starbucks for first place, or it was a close second. Five of the testers say it was OK, but noted it was a little bitter than the other offerings, with a slightly artificial taste.

"I'm not getting the fresh pumpkin flavor that I like," one tester says.

"More bitter," but "very pie-like," says another.

The Dunkin' Donuts latte, which was $2.59 for a small, struck out with many of our taste-testers, who say it was bland, milky, and far too sweet. One taste tester says it was lighter in color — like coffee with cream in it, whereas many of the others had a bit of an orange hue to them.

"Didn't taste like coffee, but didn't taste good, either," says the tester who isn't a giant fan of coffee.

"It tastes a bit off," says another.

With exception of two of the eight testers, McDonalds' Pumpkin Spice Latte was a no-go for our group, too. It cost $2.69 before tax for a small.

One tester says that she was "pleasantly surprised" by its flavor. Another says that while it had a "very off-putting color," it was her favorite as long as she couldn't see the vivid orange liquid.

The rest of the taste testers had other things to say about it, though. "Loaded with sugar as I expected. Wow. Tasty treat, but not a coffee drink," one says.

"Bad taste," says another. "I'm NOT lovin' it."

The worst of the spread by far was the Archer Farms Pumpkin Spice Latte Instant Coffee, which was $4.99 before tax for five packets of mix. It was thin and watery, and tasted like a combination of cinnamon and clove spices — not pumpkin.

"Nope," says one tester. "Can't taste the sweetness. Tastes like cardboard. Whoever thought this should go on (the) market should rethink their career."

"Tastes like cinnamon water," another says.

"Didn't taste like coffee," adds another.

While Starbucks seemed to be the overall winner, the best pumpkin latte or coffee pick really comes down to preference. If your pumpkin latte needs an emphasis on the coffee or espresso flavor, the Caribou version might be your best bet. If you're looking for more of a sweet treat, perhaps you should try the McDonald's take on the drink. If a good mix of the two is what you seek, go for Starbucks.

Most of these drinks' nutritional values also may be altered by swapping out 2-percent milk for skim or a dairy-free milk, or by substituting sugar-free flavoring for the full-flavored versions. Check with the location of your choice to learn about the options.

Laura Anderson Shaw is the editor of Radish.

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