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Pumpkin is (Sorta) the Spice of Life. But Why?



As our seasons get ever more bizarre in duration, behavior, and intensity—last year, much of the east coast’s dreams of a white Christmas were dashed hard against the rocks of a December 25th so warm you could break out your board shorts and drive with the windows down—the annual creep of holiday influence into earlier and earlier points of the calendar year doesn’t seem quite as out of place as it once did. Store shelves packed with Halloween decorations used to seem completely out of place in steamy mid-August, but now, who knows? Maybe Halloween’s gonna be downright tropical.

Comfortable or accepting as many of us have come to be with these circumstances, there remains at least one factor of the holiday season that seems to polarize people in an entertaining, “I’m totally going to make a meme out of this and get all those crunchy Facebook accolades” kind of way: pumpkin spice.

You may know it by its starring role in, like, everything. There are pumpkin spice Frosted Mini-Wheats. There’s pumpkin spice Greek yogurt. There are even pumpkin spice potato chips. And, of course, a holiday season without a Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL, if you’re hip) is like a birthday party without cake: Sure, you’re having a good time, but are you really?

Here’s the thing: The array of spices that make up what we know as pumpkin spice aren’t at all hard to find at any time of year (more on that in a bit). But for as popular and ubiquitous as pumpkin spice is during the fall, it’s nowhere to be found from, say, January through August. As us precocious, scientifically minded folks like to say: What’s up with that?

And that’s where science and medicine come in.

See, pumpkin spice showing up absolutely everywhere during a certain time of the year has nothing to do with availability and everything to do with how you react upon smelling or tasting it. On the surface, you’re buying those pumpkin spice Dr. Scholl’s inserts because you like the scent—but on a deeper level, you may very well be buying the warm, comforting feeling you get around the holidays. Smell and taste are tied to memory.

And if you don’t believe me, you should definitely believe Richard L. Doty, PhD. He’s a professor of Psychology in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology at the Perelman School of Medicine, and the director of the Smell and Taste Center here at Penn Medicine.

“Conditioning occurs to pleasant situations and holidays,” Doty said. “The emotional elements of the brain—especially the amygdala and hippocampus—seem to be involved.”

The idea seems to be that the senses of taste and smell bring in more novel, nuanced elements than the normal forms and shapes you’ll get through vision, so they can more readily be tied to specific people, places, things, or events. It’s why you might not be able to pick your great-grandmother’s kitchen cabinets out of a lineup of two, but you’d know the smell of the inside of those cabinets in a heartbeat. So theoretically, pumpkin spice starts showing up in everything right around this time of year because this is the time of year when we’re looking for that particular “hit” of holiday nostalgia and warm tidings.

So, then, how did pumpkin spice come to be associated with this specific time of year?

“Duh, Rob,” you might be saying. “This is the time of year when pumpkins … happen.”

“Ah ha!” I might say in response, “but pumpkin spice doesn’t have any pumpkin in it.”

Yes, much like how Shamrock Shakes don’t actually contain any shamrocks and Mississippi mud pie contains neither mud nor Mississippi, pumpkin spice doesn’t contain any pumpkin. In fact, all of the spices involved in the creation of that familiar pumpkin flavor are readily available year-round. There are myriad recipes online, but most of them involve some combination of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves. Slam ‘em together in the right ratio, and you’ve got pumpkin spice, which you can then use to make, among other things, pumpkin pie.

So maybe, for pumpkin spice, the real tie-in to fall doesn’t directly hinge upon the availability of pumpkins. It may hinge upon the fact that we, for reasons that evade me to this day, only eat pumpkin pie around this time of year. So we were accustomed to only getting that scent around this time of year, and now we’re only looking for it around this time of year, because the parts of our brains that control memory and emotion have inextricably strung the scent and nostalgia together.

More simply: Why is pumpkin spice everywhere this time of year? Because everybody knows they can use that flavor to their advantage and bring holiday-ready, sentimental folks in by the truckload.

But frequently, a lot of these products don’t even have actual pumpkin spice. They just have chemicals that tick those same receptors. So … should we feel a little deceived?

“Actually, the ‘artificial’ odors are derived from chemical analysis of the ‘natural’ product,” Doty said. “For many spices or flavors, dozens and even hundreds of chemicals can be involved.”

Basically, it’s as real as you want it to be. If the subconscious reason you’re buying that PSL is to feel like Christmas is right around the corner, and that’s how it actually does make you feel, then really—chemicals or no chemicals—what’s the difference? If you’re all about pumpkin spice, have at it. Enjoy this time of year. If you can’t stand hearing about it, um … sorry. Especially if you read this whole post. But either way, it’ll be gone soon, and we won’t see it again for another nine months.

And finally, because it’s something I absolutely had to know: I checked in with Doty to see if he was for or against pumpkin spice.

“I like pumpkin spice very much,” he said.

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