You know it’s fall when the leaves start changing color, the air feels a little crisper at night and pumpkin spice fever starts running rampant everywhere from Starbucks to the grocery store.
If you’ve ever wondered why one of those sugar-meets-spice beverages is so hard to resist, there’s a perfectly sensible scientific explanation: The smell and taste triggers a nostalgic emotional response in our brains. The spices used in pumpkin spice products are “popular spice combinations” we associate with happy, comforting times in life — like enjoying grandma’s famous pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
“It’s not just the pumpkin spice combo, it’s that we’ve already wired a subset of those spices as ‘good’ very early in life,” Catherine Franssen, assistant professor of psychology and director of the neurostudies minor at Longwood University in Virginia, explains to CNN.
The interesting thing about pumpkin spice is that pumpkin is very seldom involved in the mixture. According to food science communicator for the Institute of Food Technologists Kantha Shelke, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, dry ginger and clove or allspice are typically what the blend consists of. However, many food companies opt for a synthetic version to “trick your brain into thinking” you are consuming the real deal.
While various cultures indulge in similar spice mixtures, “in the Western world, the aroma of pumpkin spice immediately transports people to all the warm and friendly times associated with pumpkin pie, holiday gatherings, families, celebrations, treats, sweets … things that childhood memories are made of,” Shelke explained. “This is why the pumpkin spice latte is trendy.”
Ever since Starbucks introduced the Pumpkin Spice Latte back in 2003, it’s become the company’s most popular seasonal beverage — despite the immense amount of sugar and whopping calorie count each drink contains. (A Starbucks 16-ounce made with 2 percent milk and topped off with whipped cream comes in at 380 calories, 14 grams of fat, 50 grams of sugar and 14 grams of protein.) The PSL even has its own Twitter and Instagram accounts as well as hashtags, with the coffee chain touting it as “fall’s official beverage.”
“Marketing is truly the key here, and there’s some incredibly interesting neuroscience going on,” Franssen said, explaining that our brains get conditioned to expect the flavor’s arrival each season and feel comforted by it. “We don’t have innate odor responses. We learn odors through associations, but the associations we make with pumpkin spice are generally all very positive.”
But it doesn’t stop there. Even without the marketing, there’s something about that pumpkin spice mixed with sugar that makes it addictive. “When an odor or flavor — and 80 percent of flavor is actually smell — is combined with sucrose or sugar consumption in a hungry person, the person learns at a subconscious, physiological level to associate that flavor with all the wonderful parts of food digestion,” Franssen continued.
Basically, when that pumpkin spice flavor we love combines with sugar, our brains and bodies remember how delightfully delicious it is. So whenever we smell it or even imagine pumpkin spice, our bodies have an anticipatory response and start craving it. Which explains why most of us aren’t craving pumpkin spice vegetables instead of pumpkin pie.
So, ultimately, “the pumpkin spice latte is actually, scientifically, kind of addictive,” Franssen says. “Not quite the same neural mechanisms as drugs of abuse, but, certainly, the more you consume, the more you reinforce the behavior and want to consume more.”
As of yet, there are no 12-step programs for Pumpkin Spice Latte addicts. But before you start making daily trips to Starbucks, you might want to read about the drawbacks of the fall favorite here.
If you want to have a wonderfully delicious pumpkin spice latte without the crazy amounts of sugar — and with actual pumpkin in it — check out this wonderful DIY version! You can find the recipe here and the instructional video below.
What Do YOU Think?
Are you addicted to pumpkin spice lattes? Does the science behind the PSL craving make sense to you? How many pumpkin spice products do you consume every fall?