Experts say pumpkin spice seasoning involves some “incredible chemistry” that can produce a nostalgic aroma as well as a comfortable feeling. That is most likely why so many of us crave anything with Pumpkin Spice in it.
“They taste like a warm-blanket feels,” said Joanna Wheeler Johnson, a school psychologist in Georgia.
“It’s really the smell, not the flavor that I love,” added Chelsea Murphy of San Marcos. “I always buy at least one pumpkin spice latte at the beginning of autumn weather. Then, I remember that I don’t actually like the super sweet taste.”
The pumpkin-spiced craze is about 15 years old and has seen an acceleration in popularity since its earliest days. In 2003, Starbucks introduced their famous PSL, which now has its own verified Instagram and Twitter accounts, if you can believe that!
Before the coffeehouse conglomerate introduced their famous fall concoction, the seasonal scent was primarily used for candles and home fragrances. Now, however, pumpkin spice flavorings are in almost every type of food you could imagine, from Cheerios to Oreos, pancake mixes, and protein bars. If you think this pumpkin spiced insanity is a prime example of marketing done right, well, you might be correct. But there’s also some science to explain why we’re all lining up around the corner the day Starbucks drops their first cup of PSL.
Pumpkin spice mixes are typically a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and clove or allspice, said Dr. Kantha Shelke, a food science communicator with the Institute of Food Technologists and an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
“Spices alone do not create the ‘pumpkin spice latte’ magic,” Shelke told min a recent phone interview. “The popular and almost addictive taste and aroma develops only when these spices are cooked or baked with pumpkin, cream, butter, and sugar. It is this flavor combination that companies have replicated in the popular pumpkin spice latte using extracts and flavors. Pumpkin spice products don’t contain pumpkin or even just these spices. There is some incredible chemistry behind it.”
There’s also the emotional aspect of it, Shelke said.
Kristen Hovet, a Vancouver-based science journalist and yoga instructor, said the addictive nature of pumpkin spice also goes to a biological reaction we have when we eat these foods.
Hovet learned during yoga teacher training, including some courses on Ayurveda (a holistic healing approach), that pumpkin-spiced products come with many healthful ingredients.
“These four main pumpkin spice ingredients [cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves] all have warming properties and increase circulation,” Hovet told Healthline. “This is perfect for cooler or cold weather, when our circulation slows down. A reduced flow of oxygen can make you feel tired and lethargic, but after having a pumpkin spice latte or another pumpkin-spice flavored food or beverage, our blood vessels expand and we feel warmer and more energized.”
It’s this pleasure sensation, as well as the memories the flavors evoke, that have us reaching for every pumpkin-spiced food we can find, Shelke says. “Seasonality helps. The warmth of the mixture is an ideal comfort during cooler weather,” She added, “Being warm and happier — and therefore, nicer and more giving — especially during the holiday season makes pumpkin spice as effective as juniper and pine in fireplaces in changing our frame of mind and soothing us. Optimized spirits can be uplifting and foster a feeling of wellness, and this can make people crave it repeatedly.”
If you don’t have the five bucks to offer the green apron-clad baristas, that’s OK. Hovet offers a few ideas for enjoying the benefits of the spices without shelling out major cash.
“I am celiac, so I have to eat gluten-free and I love putting pumpkin spice into GF oatmeal on cold mornings,” she said. “Another favorite is pumpkin spice cookies made with brown rice flour and canned pumpkin.”
Not a fan of the pumpkin spice combination, but enjoy the spicy comfort in warm beverages? You’re still in luck. Several other foods and spice combinations offer the same feel-good benefits and they’re equally flavorful and healthful.
“Chai would be very similar in that it is black tea often mixed with the main ingredients of pumpkin spice plus cardamom,” Hovet said. “Cardamom, in addition to having warming properties itself, is excellent for relieving gas and bloating. You can see that many of these blends share certain commonalities. They are warming, increase circulation, and aid digestion.”
Shelke adds that the mixture of spices for Middle Eastern baklava and the cinnamon-nutmeg mix in rice puddings evoke many of the same intense emotions as pumpkin spice. “The caramelizing notes of burning sugar can be soothing for many, for it reminds them of childhood days and mom baking cookies,” Shelke added. “When sugar is heated, it forms a vast number of aromatic compounds that can transport people through a range of experiences beyond cookies.”
1. Cinnamon - Cinnamon has a history of being used to spice up both food and medicine. It has a number of different medicinal properties that keep the body healthy and strong. It possesses anti-clotting agents, plus it has a real positive effect on the blood and in and some circumstances can be used to prevent unwanted clumping of blood platelets. It also helps lower cholesterol, keeps your arteries remain healthy, and can aid in managing blood sugar levels.
2. Ginger - Ginger is a natural remedy for nausea, kind of like how you drink ginger ale when your stomach is upset. You can also use ginger to help improve the absorption and assimilation of essential nutrients in the body, not to mention that its often used as an anti-inflammatory agent. According to some research, ginger also has some cancer preventative measures, sort of similar to chemotherapy!
3. Nutmeg - Next on our list, nutmeg is apparently really great for digestion. It also has the added benefit as a sleep aid, reducing the effects of insomnia. One positive health benefit is that it processes the oils, myristicin and macelignan, which have been proven to reduce the degeneration of neural pathways and cognitive function in the brain; something that usually afflicts those with dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
4. Allspice - Finally there is allspice. Allspice is not just a combination of spices used in pumpkin pie spice. It's also a spice product that originates from an evergreen in Central America and Caribbean islands that ironically smells like a combination of black pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. Traditionally this spice has been used to treat and prevent infections. It can also help with colds, chills, and bronchitis, as it aids in opening the airways and inhibits the over-production of mucus. While holding some digestive benefits, as well as a mild pain reliever, allspice has in some cases exhibited antioxidant properties and helped in fighting depression.
Happy Gardening and Happy Halloween!!