Why Are We Obsessed with Pumpkin Spice?

By Suri Lipsky

Pumpkin Spice. Just these two words are enough to send half the population into a fall- crazed frenzy, with the other half rolling their eyes and scoffing in annoyance at the cliche. The blend of sweet spices makes its annual debut every fall, most prominently in coffees, and increasingly in candles, baked confections, soaps, and even fragrances. Whether you hate the very idea of pumpkin spice or can’t get enough of the autumn addiction, this fall favorite flavor combo has become an obsession, and I am set on figuring out why.


Those of you who can’t manage a cool fall morning without a piping hot pumpkin spice latte (PSL) might just be addicted. PSL addiction is real, but it is not what you may think. Latte lovers of all flavors get addicted not to the pumpkin spice in the latte, but rather to the sugar. At Starbucks, a grande pumpkin spice latte with non-fat milk and no whip contains a whopping 50 grams of sugar, while a venti with whole milk and whip can contain upwards of 64 grams of sugar! This is worryingly twice the daily recommended sugar limit of 25-37.5 grams! It is therefore no surprise that dedicated pumpkin spice drinkers feel addicted to the stuff; they experience  a rush from the sugar in the drink but eventually crash, and begin to seek the boost from their favorite drink–a fix readily available on every corner of New York City. This is just one of many possible reasons one might feel the need to jump on the pumpkin spice bandwagon as it make its appearance each year.


Sugar addiction may not be the only factor causing this fall frenzy. Reactance theory–the psychological phenomenon where a person’s behavior changes as they react to a perceived limit  for free choice–may also explain why consumers jump so eagerly onto this sweet n’ spicy orange bandwagon. Reactance theory is what causes mobs of people to swarm stores on Black Friday, and why limited time offers are more successful than general clearance sales. When a person is led to believe that their capacity for access to a product is limited their desire for the product is sent into overdrive. As a result consumers purchase limited availability and seasonal products more often than other products on offer. Each year, pumpkin spice makes its appearance for the short time in the fall. Consumers react to this exclusive seasonal offer by buying more of it than they would have if pumpkin spice was available year round.  


Lastly, nostalgia, as it relates to the way we experience smells and emotions can explain the perpetuation of the pumpkin spice craze. Psychologists and neurologists explain that the feeling of nostalgia a person associates with pumpkin spice actually has a lot to do with the way the brain processes smell and memory. The neural pathways of smell (the olfactory system) and memory are fundamentally connected. When we process a smell, we process memories simultaneously. While this notion has yet to undergo rigorous scientific testing, perhaps for the masses who melt at the mention of pumpkin spice, the whiff of nutmeg and cinnamon triggers pleasant emotions and memories associated with the pleasantries of the fall season. The pumpkin spice craze may in fact be a passionate chase of delightful memories and longing for the past.


It is undeniable that Pumpkin Spice has left its mark on the market of seasonal products. Pumpkin Spice has achieved a level of fame no other flavor has achieved. Whether this is due to sugar addiction, reactance theory, or the nostalgia involved in the processing of smell, the jury is still out. But one thing we perhaps can agree on, for better or for worse, Pumpkin Spice had revolutionized not only the world of flavored drinks, but the very concept of Autumn and the pleasantries we associate with the season.

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