Sabrina Xie / Sun Staff Designer

According to Prof. Gavin Sacks, food sciences, what makes pumpkin spice so popular has nothing to do with its ingredients but its connection to the fall.

October 12, 2020

Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice: The Science Behind Fall’s Favorite Drink

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From lattes to cereal flavors, pumpkin spice is ubiquitous every fall — but what is it about pumpkin spice that makes it so popular?

Prof. Gavin Sacks, food science, whose research focuses on flavor chemistry, said nostalgia is the main psychological reason for why certain fall drinks — such as pumpkin spice lattes and apple cider — become very common during this time of year.

“We have plenty of foods and beverages that serve a function in rituals that are specific to a particular time and help us form memories and connections with each other,” Sacks said. “It’s part of what makes the season a season. Does having cotton candy at a fair during the summer taste better? I don’t know. But it’s part of the ritual.”

Memories play an important part in how we perceive food, according to Sacks. Certain foods are associated with traditions and holidays, especially in November and December.

“The association between pumpkin spice and fall is also partially due to the unique way in which it is produced historically — which lends itself to becoming more common as the weather gets cooler”, Sacks said.

Sacks then explained how wet cooking methods — such as boiling, braising, and stewing — are more common during the fall and winter, since people tend to enjoy hot foods and drinks when the weather is colder.

“Brown spices — cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg — those are spices in Western cooking that are generally not used when we’re consuming raw fruits and vegetables,” Sacks said. “They’re usually used when we’re preparing things with a wet cooking method or roasting fruits and vegetables, and that kind of cooking is more common as the weather gets cooler.”

The flavor compounds, degradation products of lipids and hemicelluloses are key components of the dried seeds, stamens and bark plants that make up brown spices. Lipids and hemicelluloses are both important for maintaining the structure of the plant cell membrane and cell wall, respectively. The flavor compounds in these spices are crucial to producing pumpkin spice’s unique flavor.

The sweetening of these processed brown spices completes the pumpkin spice flavor process, creating a more appealing and cozy flavor.

Although processing a sweetened blend of brown spices makes the pumpkin spice flavor, it’s not always the preferred method. Pre-formulated extracts can be more convenient to use for pumpkin spice flavored foods.

“For something that’s pumpkin spice flavored, pumpkin spice donuts, for example, you wouldn’t necessarily use ground spices,” Sacks said. “It would probably be more convenient and easier to use the essential oils or extracts of some of these plants. You can buy these kinds of extracts that  are pre-formulated for use in particular applications from flavor companies.”

Whether you’re drinking a pumpkin spice latte or eating a pumpkin spice donut, what makes this fall treat enjoyable has little to do with the ingredients itself.