A Flavor Scientist On Why Americans Are So Obsessed With Pumpkin Spice

Food & Drink

On August 24th, Starbucks released its seasonal Pumpkin Spice Latte, and Dunkin Donuts unveiled its pumpkin coffee beverages on August 18th. While many rolled their eyes, pumpkin enthusiasts, eager to embrace the taste of fall, rejoiced. Regardless of whether you’re on Team Pumpkin or not, we’ve been wondering, what’s with the pumpkin mania? I spoke with flavor scientist Marie Wright, who is the Chief Global Flavorist at ADM. Throughout her career, Wright has created over 2,000 flavors for major food and beverage companies, working on a broad range of products, from plant-based meat to candy. She currently serves on the board of Women in Flavor & Fragrance Commerce. Here, she discusses why Americans are so enamored with this seasonal flavor and what other flavor trends are on the rise. 

Jess Cording: First off, what are some of the primary notes or flavors that make up what we recognize as “pumpkin spice?” 

Marie Wright: It’s fairly basic as a spice blend. The base is cinnamon with clove, ginger, nutmeg, and sometimes allspice. You do see a lot of variations. Starbucks is probably the most established taste that people probably think of, which people think of as The pumpkin spice. Spices are known to be nostalgic and evocative. If we’re making a pumpkin spice flavor, we often add vanilla, another flavor that evokes comfort and nostalgia. 

Cording: Why do you think Americans are so obsessed with pumpkin spice products? 

Wright: For the average American, it triggers nostalgia and evokes holiday seasons where people get together and connect with loved ones. These flavors and aromas trigger memories or family events and being around people, something we have all been missing even more during the pandemic. From a scientific perspective, this happens in the same part of the brain where emotions and memories are provoked. 

Cording: Why do you think flavor can be so emotional  and nostalgic? 

Wright: There’s a lot of science around the emotional impact of essences, oils, and molecules. On the fragrance side, they’ve done a lot of research in this area. Flavor and smell trigger something very primal in the brain. Memories and emotions are evoked and there are certain components provoked that can trigger certain chemicals like melatonin, and scientists have looked at measurements like heartbeat to note people’s reaction. 

Cording: Are there comparable flavor fixations in other countries? 

Wright: I think pumpkin spice has gone a little crazy. I think part of that is social media.The pumpkin spice latte has its own Twitter! I think there’s an element of nostalgia. With covid, the PSL’s across companies came out early because people were anxious and needed that comfort. In other areas of the world there are flavors associated with fall, such as apple spice or eggnog (a big one in the UK), but there is nothing quite as crazy. Green tea and wasabi are very popular in Japan but are not seasonal. 

Cording: What are some emerging flavor trends? 

Wright: Trends don’t just change, they evolve. As we move into our second year of the pandemic, there’s a lot of interest around immunity. When it comes to flavor, in products geared toward immunity, we look for flavors that might signal those healthy benefits like elderberry and citrus, such as citrus varieties like blood orange and yuzu. I’ve also seen more smoked flavors, which are evocative of high indulgence. You also see more truffle and Korean barbecue. [In snacks and protein bars] we’re seeing a lot of coffee flavors and salty caramel. In the time we’re living in, people are not traveling as much so they are looking for more interesting flavors from the Middle East, Africa, and India as well as nostalgic flavors to bring comfort.

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