Oh my gourd, pumpkin spice is back. Add to the mysteries of the universe the precise moment when the fuzzy sweater of aromatic blends jumped the golden, flaky confines of a Thanksgiving dessert staple to conquer America’s food and beverage aisles.
The slow creep of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and, sometimes, cardamom from pie flavoring that knew its place to tastebud-invading army may have started in 1934, when McCormick, the spice company, packaged a blend for convenient mixing with a plop of canned pumpkin. Mmmm, tasty.
Once it came in an easy-to-dispense shaker bottle, it was only a matter of time before pumpkin spice would shake up America’s notion of what’s acceptable to put in our mouths. Today, its hallmark aroma wafts up from everything from cereal, whiskey, hard seltzer, and hot cocoa mix to foods that were already acquired tastes to begin with — pumpkin spice Twinkies, anyone? Hormel introduced a “limited edition” pumpkin spice SPAM in 2019 and, mercifully, kept its promise: It hasn’t been seen since, other than as a salty-sweet collector’s-item-in-a-can on eBay.
Then, of course, there is coffee. The Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte — or PSL to its enthusiasts, more than 90,000 of whom follow the beverage on Twitter — hit the market in 2003. Starbucks rushed the season this year, rolling out what it calls “fall’s official beverage” in August. Too soon? Apparently not. The company reported an immediate “PSL effect,” with sales jumping 10 percent week over week since.
The ubiquity of pumpkin spice may well be a marketing coup for the ages — annual sales topped $511 million in 2019 — but there’s also a scientific basis for why it appeals. In the Dynamic Perception Lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, doctoral student Sarah Cormiea and assistant professor Jason Fischer, both in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, have been studying how people process and understand smell.
“Objects in the world that we’re smelling — those objects have dozens, maybe even hundreds, of molecules that arrive at the nose,” says Fischer. So rather than isolate individual molecules, as previous studies of the sense of smell have done, the pair have focused on all that an odor conveys once it reaches our nostrils.
“Odor activates the receptors in your nose, and taste activates the receptors in your mouth,” Cormiea says. “But the term ‘flavor’ refers to a holistic experience of taste and smell. It refers to all of the senses, like sound and texture, that are going on while you eat something.”
Taste, says Fischer, “is a much lower-dimensional experience” than smell. Plug your nose while eating a Dorito and “it’s like salty cardboard,” he says. “It’s still crunchy, but you wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s a Dorito if you hadn’t seen it.” Let go of your nose and exhale through it, Cormiea says, “And you will suddenly have a burst of cheesy flavor in your mouth, which is crazy because that sensation is not coming from your mouth. It’s coming from your nose.”
“The power of odors to summon up memories, to attach themselves through associations to other things, and then to powerfully summon up those experiences later on makes the pumpkin spice connection a really interesting one, because we are experiencing it everywhere right now at this time of year,” Fischer says. “It really elicits that experience of fall.”
For those who love it, the aroma of pumpkin spice, by virtue of its seasonal popularity, triggers happy associations of crisp autumn air and even good times with family. Were it to become a year-round offering, Fischer says, “we wouldn’t be able to summon up these memories in the same way.”
But here’s the thing about pumpkin spice: “It contains no pumpkin,” says Fischer. This fact, he says, “really helps us make our point from the science angle, because it’s an example of how just the association can help your mind to fill in that experience. The missing pumpkin doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t taste like pumpkin to you.”
What’s more, “we know that just reading the word ‘cinnamon’ activates the piriform cortex,” Cormiea says, referring to the part of the brain that processes odors. “Reading odor-associated words will cause activity in that area. So it’s like the brain is getting ready, it’s anticipating the cinnamon. So Starbucks — they know what they’re doing. They’re going to put that word ‘pumpkin’ everywhere that they can, because you already have nostalgia and memories associated with it, and now you’re stimulating people to anticipate it by giving it the label.”
For some, “pumpkin spice” may well imbue food and drink with positive associations, but not even scientific discovery can justify all of its applications. “Pumpkin spice hummus,” Cormiea says, “is a crime against humanity.”
Kelly Horan is the deputy editor of Ideas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.