As the leaves turn colors and the wind starts to blow a little colder, it doesn’t just mean that holidays are around the corner, but that the invasion of pumpkin spice is here!
It can’t be escaped. Pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin spice cereal, pumpkin spice Twinkies®, pumpkin spice butter, pumpkin spice yogurt, and even pumpkin spice vodka! Why do we enjoy turning everything into a pumpkin spice flavor? What makes us crave it so much?
Pumpkin spice is usually a mixture of different spices such as, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and ginger. Very rarely is any form of pumpkin added in, rather, this concoction of spices is baked in or sprinkled on top of a favorite pumpkin dish. And forms of pumpkin spice mixtures have been used in cultures around the world for thousands of years. However, it isn’t necessarily the “pumpkin flavor” that we end up craving each fall.
However, according to food scientist, Kantha Shelke, PhD, commercial pumpkin spice ingredients tend to veer away from grandma’s amazing pumpkin spice mix. Traditional pumpkin spice mix usually contains 340 flavor compounds, but the human brain is able to fill in the blanks, so commercial operators use around 5 to 10 percent of the natural blend. Other synthetic flavors used for commercial use include eugenol to emulate allspice, sabinene for nutmeg, and zingiberene for ginger.
There have been several studies done to prove the additive nature of pumpkin spice. When taking a sip of that latte or a bite of your cereal, a chemical boost occurs due to the added sugar that comes with pumpkin spice. It is this sugar boost that makes us keep wanting more products engulfed with the pumpkin spice. It has also provided one of the greatest mood boosters of all time.
Catherine Franssen, PhD, said, “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.”
Then there is a technique called “flavor layering” that prevents your brain from experiencing sensory specific satiety. This occurs when an abnormal amount of salt is added to a product. Meaning that your brain won’t get bored with the overall flavor the way it would if you just had the salt and sugar individually. Salt is a natural flavor enhancer that can bring out specific notes in foods or drinks. So, companies will often include an increased amount of salt that can make the food or drink taste much better overall. In doing so though, you can end up consuming way more salt than the recommended daily allowance.
Salt continues to play tricks on your brain because it is an essential nutrient your body needs, which creates a natural craving for the substance. This can even escalate to sometimes stimulating the same craving that cigarettes and drugs do.
Several studies have also shown that several pumpkin spice products flavor with fat instead of salt. Research shows that, like sugar, ingesting fat can help a person feel less sad, which in turn makes you want more of it.
While there are a lot of chemical reactions that occur when you eat or drink your favorite pumpkin spice products, several researchers stand by the idea that the emotional recall the brain has tied with these spices is the main reason people keep coming back to them. Smell can also have a powerful effect on the brain. The mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and ginger creates an aroma that is typically associated with warmth, holiday season, and good food. It is the nostalgia that we can become addicted to, especially if there are fond and positive memories associated with those smells and flavors.
Harvard Medical School even claims that the spices are connected with benefits like improved memory, increased attention, enhanced cognitive processing, improved mood, pain relief, inducing sleep, and antibacterial/antioxidant/antimicrobial properties.
So, head out to your closest coffee shop or grocery store and don’t be afraid to be “basic”! Buy your favorite latte or pumpkin spice foods, they will only be around for a little bit longer, so indulge in the nostalgia while you can.