You know it is late summer when your Facebook and Instagram feeds start filling up with posts about how much people are looking forward to pumpkin spice in the fall.
The Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte turns 15 years old this September, and can be partially credited for the pumpkin spice craze that permeates the population each autumn. In fact, the coffee franchise sold more than 200 million of these seasonal drinks in the first 10-years after its initial launch in 2003.
But, you already know this fad is not limited to just coffee. You can find pumpkin spice in virtually any form, from candles and body lotions to cookies and even dog treats.
So, just what is pumpkin spice anyway, and why does its resurgence cause such a frenzy each fall? Consider this your primer to help you get ready for National Pumpkin Spice Day on October 1st.
What Is Pumpkin Spice?
Though there seems to be no end to the pumpkin spice products that hit store shelves each year, the basic ingredients are simple. The spice is normally a combination of cinnamon, clove, ginger, vanilla, allspice, nutmeg, and occasionally actual pumpkin (though it isn’t always included).
Why Is Pumpkin Spice So Popular?
The pumpkin spice flavor is distinct, but the timeframe it is associated with is even more-so. Fall is marked by an anticipation of the return of pumpkin spice, along with a get-it-while-you-can mentality. Creating a limited-time product significantly increases its demand, especially when it’s tied to a holiday or season.
Consumers often rush to get their hands on pumpkin spice products before they’re replaced with gingerbread, peppermint, and other flavors commonly associated with the winter holidays. This is related to the psychology of reactance theory, a motivational reaction to offers, rules, regulations or people that limit our behavior. This psychological theory explains why consumers rush to purchase a limited-time product over others that are available year-round.
Social conformity is another factor that drives the popularity of pumpkin spice. The more you see your friends clutching hot cups of pumpkin spice lattes or tweeting about the delicious pumpkin spice candle that’s burning in their house, the more likely you are to want to follow suit.
The Science Behind Pumpkin Spice
For many, the spicy flavors and scent of pumpkin spice are enough to bring autumn leaves, cozy sweaters, and crackling fires to mind. It’s a way to get into the holiday spirit, reminding people that holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving are right around the corner. Simply put, it’s nostalgic.
Much of that nostalgia has to do with the way that humans process smell. After a scent enters the nostrils, it travels through the cranial nerve through the olfactory bulb, a neural structure that helps the brain process smells.
As part of the limbic system, known as the emotional hotspot of the brain, the olfactory bulb has strong input into the amygdala. This almond-sized mass is located inside each cerebral hemisphere and controls autonomic responses connected to fear, arousal and emotional stimulation.
This is the reason why certain smells can inspire a feeling of nostalgia. Drinking a pumpkin spice latte or smelling a freshly-baked pumpkin spice cookie can bring back fond memories of fall, the holidays, and other feel-good recollections.
Whether it’s driven by nostalgia or just a fondness for the flavor, there’s no doubt that 2018 will be another popular year for the pumpkin spice latte. Make sure to visit your local coffee shop or try a popular DIY recipe and join in on the craze this fall.