When a Chemist Makes a Pumpkin Spice Latte

As many of you know it’s pumpkin spice latte season. They’re a special treat for Mrs 'Struction this time of year, but as we’re working on cutting back our expenses, I took it upon myself to see if I couldn’t make something approximate at home using my chemical knowhow.

With apologies to FoodBabe, it doesn’t have any pumpkin in it. Believe or not, I tried, but the result was roundly rejected. In the process I also learned something new: pumpkin pie filling and canned pumpkin are NOT the same thing. Now way. No How. In any case, suspending a big of pumpkin puree into your morning coffee does not make for a pleasant flavor experience. It came out bitter, so I fell back on just the pumpkin spices. The world “pumpkin" can also be an adjective. Not everyone knows that.

I’ll get to the simplified ingredients list in a bit, but first I want to get to some of the core flavor ingredients. There are a lot, so feel free to skim.

(2E)-3-phenylprop-2-enal - A fungicide

Ethyl 3-phenylprop-2-enoate - An ester, in the same family as polyester pants

4,11,11-trimethyl-8-methylene-bicyclo[7.2.0]undec-4-ene - Component of marijuana

3,7-dimethylocta-1,6-dien-3-ol - Closely related to many agricultural pesticides.

1-allyl-4-methoxybenzene - A constituent of turpentine

4-(4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)-2-butanone - An antibacterial poison

(E)-1-(4-Hydroxy-3- methoxyphenyl)dec-4-en-3-one - A medium chain, aromatic aldehyde

(S)-5-hydroxy-1-(4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)-3-decanone - A possible chemotherapeutic agent

2,2-dimethyl-3-methylene-bicyclo[2.2.1]heptane - Another constituent of turpentine, and useful as lamp oil.

6-allyl-4-methoxy-1,3-benzodioxole - A precursor of the psychedelic drug MMDA (similar to ecstasy)

5-(2-propenyl)-1,3-benzodioxole - Handy if you want to make real ecstasy (MDMA)

1-Methyl-4-(1-methylethenyl)-cyclohexene - A cleaning solvent

(1S,5S)-2,6,6-trimethylbicyclo[3.1.1]hept-2-ene (1S,5S)-6,6-dimethyl-2-methylenebicyclo[3.1.1]heptane - Another constituent of turpentine, and a common industrial feedstock for the chemical industry.

(trans)-3,7-Dimethyl-2,6-octadien-1-ol - A mosquito repellent.

[2,3-dihydroxy-5-({[(2R,3R,4S,5R,6R)-3,4,5,6-tetrakis({3,4-dihydroxy-5-[(3,4,5-trihydroxyphenyl)carbonyloxy]phenyl}carbonyloxy)oxan-2-yl]methoxy}carbonyl)phenyl 3,4,5-trihydroxybenzoate](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tannic_acid) - AKA Wood stain

(4aS,6aR,6aS,6bR,8aR,10S,12aR,14bS)-10-hydroxy-2,2,6a,6b,9,9,12a-heptamethyl-1,3,4,5,6,6a,7,8,8a,10,11,12,13,14b-tetradecahydropicene-4a-carboxylic acid - a male contraceptive

dimethylheptanyl dimethyldodecahydrocyclopentaphenanthrenol - A precursor for anabolic steroid.

ethylmethylheptenyl dimethyldodecahydrocyclopentaphenanthrenol - Another anabolic steroid precursor.

4-Allyl-2-methoxyphenol - Found in some deodorants and sometimes used for euthanasia.

That’s right, I included pesticides, solvents, drug precursors, fuel oils and wood stain. My wife loved it. Before you get too freaked out, here’s the simplified list for those without an account as Sigma-Aldrich for all those chemicals.

  • 1/3 cup ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg or mace (one whole nutmeg)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cloves (3) tbs whole cloves ground
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground allspice (3 tbs whole)

The chemical names I listed above are all natural ingredients of these spices. If you suffer from chemophobia, those names can look scary, but they are merely an attempt by chemists to encode the structure of the molecules into text, with predictably unreadable and unpronounceable results. Some, like FoodBabe, have suggested the idea that you shouldn’t eat anything that you can't pronounce. This strikes me as add, because instead of letting what you know guide your eating and health decisions, you’re consciously choosing to be lead by your ignorance. Does learning more about food additives mean you can eat more and more dangerous things? "Lead" is easy to say, pass the shaker.

Don't get me wrong. There are good reasons to be concerned about what’s in our food, but falling for the common fallacies can lead to bad decisions. Let’s look at some of the common fallacies about chemicals in food.

The “Chemicals are bad” fallacy

I think I’ve already made a point about this one. Everything you eat is a chemical. What makes a chemical good or bad for you has nothing to do with how “chemically” its name sounds. There is no international body that decides what the name of a given compound should be based on some infallible measure of its dangers. 2-Oxo-L-threo-hexono-1,4-lactone-2,3-enediol sounds scary, but it’s also known as vitamin C.

The “natural is good, artificial is bad” fallacy

This is probably a good as a very general guideline, but it’s far from a rule of nature. We evolved to deal with a lot of compounds found in our environment, and so presumably a lot of “natural” compounds are safe for us. A lot aren’t, however, and just because something came from a naturally growing plant, doesn’t mean it’s any safer than something that come out of a vat. There are chemicals that kill us quickly, and chemicals that we should avoid, and chemicals that we need to live, and chemicals that do us no clear benefit or harm. Where they fall has nothing to do with where they came from. Only lab and clinical studies can really tell us which ones are which, not a blanket rule about the manufacturer, be it plant or person.

The "alternate use" fallacy.

This is the belief that if something has an alternate use, then it’s not a food. There are a lot of solvents on the list above. Most food components are organic molecules, and any organic molecule that also happens to be a liquid at room temperature can be used as a solvent. Being organic, it’ll also burn, so it could also be used to light a lamp or run an engine. That doesn’t mean that consuming nutmeg (which contains camphene) is the same as drinking turpentine or lamp oil. The fact that azodicarbonamide is used to make bread and can also be used to make yoga mats is immaterial. The relative risks need to be assessed based on the chemical’s behavior in the bread and in our bodies, not its behavior in yoga mats. As a chemist, I can envision a process to make a perfectly good yoga mat almost entirely out of products bought from the organic section of Whole Foods My being able to do that doesn’t suddenly render those products suspect.

You’ll notice there are a lot of pesticides on the list above. When you think about a poor plant's life, you’ll begin to understand. It can’t run away. It needs sun, so it can’t hide under a rock. It has to just sit there and get eaten. A lot of plants do have a way of fighting back, however, and that’s often with chemicals. The fact that many pesticides come from plants shouldn’t be surprising. These are the plants’ natural defense systems. As good rule of thumb, if you’re eating a plant product with a strong flavor, that flavor is probably a pesticide. Herbs and spices just contain the pesticides that we humans decided were particularly tasty.

The “guilt by association” fallacy

This actually overlaps with the alternate use fallacy. It comes up when something is found in something else that’s bad for you, and so you ascribe some of the “guilt” of that other thing to the ingredient. Caryophyllene is a constituent of marijuana. It’s also found in ginger. It doesn’t mean you’re a dope fiend if you like ginger, because caryophyllene is not the active ingredient in marijuana. Likewise with all those turpentine constituents.

The “related to” fallacy

Whether a chemical is life giving or dangerous depends on its structure, and small changes in the structure can have huge effects. You’ll sometimes hear scare stories about a common food component that is “in the same family as,” or “related to,” or “a precursor of” something that we’re sure is bad. Don’t be scared.

Just because something shares some structural components with a "bad" chemical, doesn’t mean it would have the same effect within your body. Some of the worst poisons work because they are very similar to compounds that are found naturally within the body. Take a naturally occurring molecule, change a single atom, and you can get a deadly poison. It will almost fit the molecular machinery, but not quite, and so will gum up the works. If making such a small change can have such a drastic effect, you can be sure that looking at similar structures doesn’t mean anything about how healthy or unhealthy a molecule is for us.

Please understand that I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be concerned about what you eat, but working from a position of knowledge is always better than working from a position of ignorance. If you’re concerned about “unnatural” compounds in your food supply, be aware that anything that comes in a box or a bag is necessarily suspect. You’d better like cooking, and you’d better learn to like vegetables, because you’re probably not getting enough, and the health effects of that will more than swamp any purported effects of the scary-sounding-chemical-of-the-week.

Oh yeah, I promised a recipe. We don't have an espresso machine, so I made this with coffee. Technically speaking, that makes it a pumpkin spice cafe au lait, but let's not quibble.

Combine the spices above. If they're whole (which I much prefer for longevity) put in a grinder and blend well. Store the mixture in an airtight, opaque container.

When it's time to perform your morning coffee ritual, make 12 ozs of coffee. Stir about 1/8th teaspoon of the spice mixture into 4 ozs of milk (I use 2%). Heat for 30 seconds in the microwave. You just want to get it warm.

For best results heat the milk first so theres some time for extraction of those yummy yummy pesticides to take place.

Then pour the milk into the coffee through a fine mesh tea strainer to catch any bigger chunks of spice your blending my have missed. Sweeten to taste and in any way you see fit. I won't judge.