Starbucks' pumpkin spice latte is here, along with everything else under the pumpkin spice sun

Food manufacturers are using the twee nostalgia of autumn to sell processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt to consumers who might otherwise know better.
Image: Pumpkin spice lattes are here early, there's pumpkin spice Spam, there's pumpkin spice everything and everything is terrible.
Pumpkin spice lattes are here early, there's pumpkin spice Spam, there's pumpkin spice everything and everything is terrible.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News
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By Erika Nicole Kendall

Beware — autumn is coming. And you’ll know it not by the cooling temperatures but by the presence of pumpkin spice in the air.

The processed food industry has ensured, whether you like it or not, that you will be overwhelmed by the combined scents of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and allspice starting every August, with the expectation that you, led by your nose and hopefully carrying a wallet, will find their fall-flavored wares irresistible.

First up, of course, is Starbucks' ubiquitous and equally loved-and-maligned pumpkin spice latte, which is available in stores alongside its new pumpkin cream cold brew on Aug. 27 — its earliest release date ever, possibly because of its ever-increasing slate of pumpkin spiced competitors in every possible variation of baked good, alcoholic or caffeinated beverage, and anything else your little heart desires.

Following that, we have the newly-seasoned SPAM Pumpkin Spice, Hormel’s latest foray into the autumnal food fold, which will be available for sale directly from the SPAM.com website in late September.

Intending to combine “deliciousness with creativity,” Hormel added the spice combination otherwise associated with sweets such as apple pie and sweet potato pie to blended pig parts in hopes that the excitement and novelty will earn them a few dollars — but that is part of the problem.

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When it comes to processed food, the industry knows no limits to squeezing an extra dollar or two out of the public, even when the public is in on the joke. The idea of Pumpkin Spice SPAM appeared in a Facebook post from 2017, and countless fans filled the comments section with giggleworthy commentary, not realizing their humor would result in an actual product for sale by the company.

SPAM isn’t exactly a product known for its healthfulness. A single serving of the product is merely two ounces — which is one-third of the amount we’re encouraged to have each day by the U.S. Department of Agriculture —and it contains a quarter of the recommended daily allowance of sodium for the average healthy adult, not to mention the 30 percent of artery-clogging saturated fat a person should have in a day.

That alone doesn’t seem too awful, but when you consider that the standard can of SPAM is allegedly intended to be divided into six servings, you realize that the average person is eating far more salt and saturated fat than they anticipated when they open that can. Let’s be honest — most people aren’t splitting that can into six pieces, and only choosing one.

And that cute pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks? A 20-ounce venti with whole milk and whipped cream is 520 calories — around 20-25 percent of an adult's recommended calories for the day — with 60 percent of the daily recommended allowance of saturated fat (more than twice a serving of pumpkin spice SPAM) and 12 percent of the daily recommended amount of sodium. A grande pumpkin cream cold brew will reportedly have 250 calories, about 20 percent of one's daily recommended allowance of overall fats, and 31 grams of added sugar — or 5 grams more than the daily recommended allowance for adult women.

Yum.

There is no kind way to put this: We have to start looking at these products as being less about annoying takes on a trend and more like what they’ve always been, what we’ve always had to expect from the food manufacturing industry: Ploys to squeeze an extra few dollars out of their consumer base by any means necessary. And, for far too long, those “means” entailed pouring tons of salt, fat and sugar into as many jars, cans, paper cups and plastic wrappers as possible in hopes that consumers would eat more, eat it faster and then rush back to buy more.

And, if they can't rely on that alone, then they'll rely on things like nostalgia — for homemade pumpkin pie, or the idea of it, at least — or planned scarcity (only offering pumpkin spice lattes for a few weeks a year, so that people binge on them while they can) to get us to buy, buy, buy. All of that might sound like it’s great for the economy, but it has, over time, been awful for our health.

This is the risk that these cutesy novelty products present to the public: What starts out as a hilarious-yet-cringeworthy inside joke among brand-fans ultimately evolves into an opportunity to find new ways to sell over-salted products to a public who simply wants to indulge in or own a piece of a legendary brand, or take a sip of a familiar drink.

At some point, we have to put our feet down. Not just because pumpkin-spiced SPAM sounds disgusting, but because we need the food manufacturers on whom we rely to provide us with products that take public health just as seriously as they do their profits.

Chronic illness isn’t some abstract, obscure issue in this country — at least, not to scientists. Study after study points out that the less processed food a person eats, the more likely they are to avoid the risks of chronic illnesses like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol. The only people who benefit from obscuring this data are the ones eager to get weird pumpkin products in your hands, and money out of your wallets faster than you can question why you spent it at all.

Novelty foods might be a cute inside joke, but nothing about our public health crisis is funny. And being marketed "cute" foods that is bad for you stinks, even if you like the smell of cinnamon.