The world is filled with hundreds of spices and spice combinations: cinnamon, vanilla, clove, black pepper, paprika, and the list goes on. Somehow, out of all of the flavors in the world, one has stepped up to being almost the definition of what autumn smells like. The flavor? Pumpkin spice.
Many readers may associate the scent with the hyper-seasonal flavor found in coffee-related beverages, which is an accurate association. Every large coffee chain reveals pumpkin spice drinks around the beginning of September (these are basically just classic drinks, like lattes, mochas or chai lattes that are spiked with something that resembles the taste of pumpkin). Along with these beverages, there is a plethora of other pumpkin-spice items, many of which you could, but may not want to eat:
Kale chips, salsa, hand soap, tomato sauce, wine, Lindor Truffles, lip balm, pudding, half and half, cream cheese, protein bars, doughnuts, cold brews, Milanos, mochi ice cream, Greenies (a chewy that is meant to clean dog teeth), Cheerios, Oreos, ale, tea, peanut butter, protein bars, protein powder, yogurt, Kombucha and Spam (yes, that Spam).
It did not take digging to the back to store shelves to find these various items. When googling “pumpkin spice,” they pop-up, as though advertisers really think that dogs everywhere know that when the first leaf turns from green to a reddish hue, pumpkin spice is available and they demand that their owners bring them a bag.
While pumpkin spice seems to be everywhere this time of year, not everyone enjoys the flavor. In one of his famous rants, John Oliver told his viewer in 2014:
"We tolerate pumpkin spice because we like the fall. It's the best season because you get to stop thinking about how weird your legs look in shorts." Oliver then went on to say:
"Pumpkin spice is just eggnog for morning people, OK? And I will be subject to its tyranny no longer! It stops here!"
Now, even eggnog comes flavored with pumpkin spice.
Oliver is not the only person to find the flavor unappealing. In a survey for RiverTown employees, 10 of the 37 respondents said that they love or enjoy pumpkin spice. Ten are indifferent and 11 say they are not fans or find the flavor disgusting. (Others wrote in saying they haven't tried it, that they like the scent but not the taste and that if they ever did try pumpkin spice, it wasn't impressive enough to keep them coming back).
This poll is not scientific enough to be relied upon as a sample for the Minnesota or Wisconsin population, but it does show that the thoughts about pumpkin spice are on a scale, not a binary.
So, why is this flavor so persistently present in society? Because a lot of people like it and it makes companies money.
Facebook has just under 100 groups dedicated to the flavor. One has 107,360 followers. Clearly, there are people who like the flavor.
Grubhub, a company that picks up food from restaurants to deliver to a costumer, found that pumpkin-spice flavored items are much more popular this time of year. According to the study, there are 118% more pumpkin/pumpkin spice-flavored dish orders in October than in most months. In November, there are 92% more pumpkin/pumpkin spice items ordered.
This is probably partly because people enjoy pumpkin spice this time a year. But the flavor does not become extinct between December and August: it can be found on a shelf in most stores.
The seasonal decline in these beverages could be due to people associating the drink with fall and saving it until the air is crisp and they can wear a scarf while sipping the beverage, but there is nothing inherently "fall" about the flavor. The reality (spoiler alert) is that many pumpkin spiced items don't have real pumpkin in them: it's just the name.
Starbucks rolled out pumpkin spice flavoring in 2003. It quickly became a financial hit and, as other companies took notice of the new market, the flavor began showing up in coffee cups all over.