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Orange (as in pumpkins) is the new black

It may be around 100 degrees in Los Angeles right now, but the smell of fall is in the air. That is, the smell of pumpkin spice latte.


The Great Pumpkin marketing machine has ramped up again, inserting the orange fruit into everything but the kitchen sink (and don't put it in the kitchen sink, I mean it—lesson learned the hard way).

We even caught sight in the grocery aisle of Pumpkin Spice Frosted Mini-Wheats from Kellogg's. Yeesh.

However, nothing says "nip in the air" like pumpkin-flavored coffee. The NPD Group found that people who buy a Pumpkin Spice Latte tend to spend more.

Read MoreStarbucks, Panera pumpkin spice lattes get makeover

But here's the shocker: That pumpkin coffee you've been craving has been a lie. There hasn't been any real pumpkin in it.

To quote Charlie Brown, "I got a rock."

Never fear, kids. Now comes PSL 2.0. This time, it's made with real pumpkin.

Starbucks began selling its reformulated fall favorite over Labor Day after announcing last month that it was adding real pumpkin and removing caramel coloring from the PSL in response to feedback from customers and partners. The full list of ingredients, which does include some preservatives, shows Starbucks is now adding pumpkin puree to the coffee.

Panera will start selling its own reformulated Pumpkin Spice Latte nationwide Wednesday, though we got an early one for a taste test. Panera has committed to "clean" beverages free of artificial ingredients, and the new "clean" PSL includes "real pumpkin."

Not to be outdone, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf has been promoting the return of its "classic Pumpkin" coffee and the introduction of Pumpkin Chai, both made of "creamy pumpkin." The chain is hosting a Fall Open House on Thursday afternoon, at which customers can sample any 12-ounce beverage for $2.

Pumpkins
Raymond Truelove | E+ | Getty Images

That $2 is a steal. Feeling nostalgic for fall isn't cheap. We bought a 12-ounce version of several PSLs, and here's the price and calorie breakdown:

  • Starbucks: $4.95 (380 calories)
  • The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf: $4.69 (350 calories)
  • Panera: $4.09 (450 calories)

How did they all taste? Like pumpkin! Though in varying degrees. In this reporter's "expert" opinion, here's how they tasted:

  • Starbucks—the effect is more latte than pumpkin; the pumpkin flavor is very subtle and deliciously delicate.
  • Coffee Bean—boldest pumpkin and spice flavors, yet with less milk and a stronger coffee profile (I liked it).
  • Panera—like Goldilocks, somewhere in between the other two, a nice balance between a traditional latte with a good punch of pumpkin.

Which did I like best? That's like asking me to choose between my children. Come on, people! Don't make me choose!