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Why is Pumpkin Spice so popular?

From coffee shops to candles, cupcakes, teas, and more, the unmistakable aroma of pumpkin spice has invaded to signal the start of autumn. Some of us cannot imagine going through the season without our favorite pumpkin spice lattes. Still others groan, begrudging the shelves upon shelves of the stuff. Indeed, it seems that every year we are reintroduced to the taste and smell through new, sometimes disturbing mediums. Pumpkin spice ales, potato chips, and even beef jerky are hitting the aisles this year. With a nearly overwhelming presence, it’s hard to believe that not so long ago pumpkin spice was an ingredient regulated to pie and little else. So, what took a once humble little spice into superstardom? Let’s dig in and discover the history of pumpkin spice.

Pumpkin spice!  (Yes, it is actually a spice.)

Pumpkin spice! (Yes, it is actually a spice.)

The Insanity Begins

Pumpkin spice is a derivative of pumpkin pie spice, an ingredient commonly used in (what else?) pumpkin pies. In the beginning, pumpkin pie was actually a savory dish, which relied more on flavors such as rosemary and salt than the more familiar sweet pie we enjoy today.

Around the 15th century, cooks began to experiment with sweeter concoctions, which blended much better with a pumpkin’s strong gourd flavor. A typical pumpkin pie spice combination includes cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves. One of the first recorded uses of such spices in pumpkin pies comes from a recipe book written in 1685 by Robert May called The Accomplisht Cook.

By the 20th century, commercially blended pumpkin pie spice mixes were available at nearly every grocery store. Baked goods using pumpkin pie flavors ranged in popularity of the years, but the kitchen is where it usually stayed.

So, if pumpkin pie has been a fall-time staple for hundreds of years, then why has it only been in the last decade or so that we’ve seen pumpkin spice explode in popularity? We have Starbucks to blame.

The culprits "aka" pumpkin spice lattes.

The culprits "aka" pumpkin spice lattes.

From Simple Spice to Superstar

In spring of 2003, Starbucks was already gearing up for fall palates in their secret flavor testing lab. They presented 20 new flavors to testers, one of which was the now infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte. Surprisingly, the flavor actually flopped during the first rounds of testing. Many of the tasters rated the latte as mediocre at best. It took one of the company’s product managers, a man named Peter Dukes, to save the “PSL” from the reject bin. Understanding the nostalgic link between the flavors of pumpkin pie and the autumnal season, Dukes and his team worked tirelessly until they uncovered the perfect flavor combination.

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What resulted was one of the most profitable flavors the company had ever introduced. As of this year, sales of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte have reached into the hundreds of millions, thanks in part to social media buzz. With so much fervor over the drink, it was only natural that other companies would want to cash in on the hype. Over the last ten years, pumpkin spice has been infused into just about anything you can eat or smell, all thanks to a drink that almost never existed.

Pumpkins, Spice, And Everything... Lies?

Recently, there has been public outcry about the actual amount of pumpkin in these famous pumpkin foodstuffs. Even Starbucks has been targeted by prominent food bloggers about the distinct lack of real pumpkin in the ingredients of their most famous drink. The majority of the time, food and beverage companies actually use synthetic pumpkin “flavoring” instead. The reasons for this are numerous; from cost to preservation concerns to flavor integrity. With the natural foods movement in full-swing, many are disappointed that their favorite treats do not fit into their dietary needs.

The easiest way to make sure your chosen pumpkin spice indulgence uses real, natural ingredients is to do a little research. Checking labels and requesting nutritional information in-person or online are great ways to make sure you know what you’re consuming. Of course, the best way to be sure your pumpkin spice snacks and drinks are more pumpkin and less “artificial flavoring” is to make them yourself!

A "Spicy" Poll


© 2014 JJ Heathcoat


JJ Heathcoat (author) from Oklahoma on September 09, 2014:

I have to admit that I am most definitely one of those people who has to have pumpkin spice coffee creamer as soon as it's in stock!

Debra Harmel on September 08, 2014:

Fall is my favorite time of year! The aroma of the pumpkin bread baking or even pumpkin spice candle burning just sets to mood for the fall season!

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