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What Is It About Pumpkin Spice?

It’s that time of year again; a time of ghosts, goblins, evil spirits, Puritan ancestors, turkey and fairytales accompanied by the all the smells of autumn, the dipping of temperatures, falling leaves and the first nips of Jack Frost. With orange as the color and pumpkin the fruit of the season, pumpkin spice is the flavor of just about everything.  But wait a minute! What does pumpkin and all the other signs of the season have to do with a fairytale? Could it have something to do with Cinderella’s sporty ride home from the infamous Ball turning into a pumpkin at the midnight hour? Or could it be something else?

Each Fall, consumers clamor to purchase items depicting the aroma and flavor of pumpkin spice. Everything from coffee lattes and sweet drinks to ice cream, butter spread, Kit Kats, scented candles, shampoo, hand soaps, beer, deodorant, dog food and hair color, just to name a relevant few. It is truly an amazing phenomenon of just how many consumers gravitate to smelling, tasting and looking like a big orange fruit that’s popping up and laying out in an open field under a new moon. And what does pumpkin spice and toilet tissue have in common: Maybe, yuck and the neighbor next door?

But go ahead, make fun and laugh. The makers and marketers of everything pumpkin spice are coming up smelling like roses or perhaps mom’s homemade pumpkin pie. It turns out that consumers’ seasonal obsession with the flavor and scent has become a $600 million annual market. So, why a fairytale? Well, it turns out that there is nothing pumpkin about pumpkin spice. It’s just cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, all spice and ginger and not so much as a seed from a pumpkin. Honest! But the lack of honesty in labeling isn’t getting in the way of a competitive war.

Starbucks, the brewers of Pumpkin Spice Latte, is leading the charge in coffee sales with about $110 million of the pumpkin spice market. Pumpkin-flavored coffee and latte sales from other chains like Dunkin, Tim Hortons and Peet’s account for the balance of revenue. Dunkin’ said it is ramping-up attacks on the competition with Dunkin’s Pumpkin Spice Signature Latte, a “smooth blend of pumpkin flavor swirl and vanilla flavor in a creamy iced latte, topped with whipped cream, caramel drizzle and cinnamon sugar.” Yummy! Starbucks is responding with a salvo of 390 calories of Pumpkin Spice Latte, a “signature espresso and steamed milk with the celebrated flavor combination of pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove,” Talk about creative content! The battle has been joined on the sidelines by a bevy of taste-testers and coffee latte experts. But the testing of flavor is subjective, so the results will be determined by any palette with the price to play. So, what’s behind our craving for seasonal flavors and aromas?

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found that scents often trigger “familiar, cozy memories that create nostalgia and increased desire to reunite with recurring seasons. The smells that are in a pumpkin spice latte are in lots of other things that are associated with this time of year very strongly — with positive memories like family Thanksgiving, or rustling fall leaves and going back to school,” said Sarah Cormiea, a Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate studying human olfactory perception. Really is she kidding, back to school? “A lot of what you think is your sense of taste is actually your sense of smell,” she added. “When we eat, smell particles are able to travel up the back of our nasal passages and activate our smell receptors. And the parts of the brain that process odor are very close to the parts of the brain that process memory information.”

In the end all the psychology and science becomes consumers’ desire for (being honest now) pumpkin-less spice. Can the aroma of pine tar with chestnuts and the sparring of trees be on the holiday horizon? Ho, Ho, Ho!