Is This Why You Crave Pumpkin Spice Every Fall?

pumpkin spice

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pumpkin spice began a phenomenal trend as the flavor of fall in 2003 when Starbucks introduced their now famous Pumpkin Spice Latte; it continues to this day with the addition of pumpkin spice crackers, butter, coffee creamer or cookies at the grocery store
  • Pumpkin spice flavoring, in combination with sugar, has driven a trend that took advantage of neurological memory and sugar addiction
  • Your appreciation for all things from the fall season may be the result of predictable novelty, a term used in interpersonal relationships describing the desire for stability and change within the same relationship
  • Whole pumpkins and pumpkin seeds are nutritional powerhouses, packed with vitamin A, riboflavin, zinc, omega-3 fats, copper, calcium and iron and a far better choice than the processed, sugar-laden, store-bought options

By Dr. Mercola

As the leaves begin to turn and the air cools in the Western Hemisphere, many begin to crave the scent and taste of pumpkin spice. You may be one of those people — and your craving is actually by design. Fall weather also heralds Halloween season, when pumpkins are cut, scooped and carved into jack-o-lanterns, an iconic part of late October festivities.

Interestingly, the pumpkin is not a vegetable as you may have imagined, but rather a fruit. In fact, it is the official state fruit of New Hampshire.1 As part of their annual celebrations, the fall pumpkin festival has showcased thousands of carved pumpkins and has held the world record for the highest number of lit jack-o-lanterns in one place on multiple occasions.

The most important use for this large, round orange fruit, is food. Botanists define a fruit as the section of a plant that contains the seeds, while vegetables are other plant parts, such as roots, leaves and stems.2 Other "vegetables" you eat likely also fall under the definition of fruit, such as cucumbers, tomatoes and avocados.

Pumpkin seeds, scooped from the inside, are a powerhouse of nutritional value, packed with magnesium, protein, zinc and copper. They also contain phytosterols and free radical-scavenging antioxidants,3 making them a healthy snack choice.

The meat from the pumpkin also provides health benefits. It has a positive effect on irritable bladder and prostate complaints. The oil from the pumpkin seeds is mildly diuretic and the principal compound found in the seed, cucurbitacins, appears to inhibit the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT)4 that plays a role in the development of male pattern baldness.5

History of the Humble Pumpkin

Pumpkins are a member of the cucurbita family, which includes cucumbers, zucchini and squash.6 The word pumpkin originated from a Greek word, pepon, that means large melon.7 Early pumpkins didn't resemble the round, upright fruit sold in stores today. Instead of being grown for decor, they were a staple in the Native American and early settlers' diet. Early Native American farmers learned to grow squash, corn and beans together, using a symbiotic relationship called "the three sisters" approach.

The corn was a natural trellis for the beans, while the bean roots naturally added nitrogen into the soil to nourish the corn. The vines would help to stabilize the corn on windy days. The squash growing low to the ground would shelter the shallow roots of the corn plants, discourage weed growth and preserve moisture in the ground.

Native American farmers introduced the pumpkin and other squash to the Pilgrims, who found the food source could retain nutrition and store for long periods. Without the pumpkin, many early settlers may have died from starvation. Poems written after the Pilgrims arrived indicated their dependence on the pumpkin for food:8

"For pottage and puddings and custards and pies

Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,

We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,

If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon."

Pilgrim verse, circa 1633

Today, the scent of pumpkin spice awakens memories of pumpkin pies, family meals and Thanksgiving dinners. However, while the pumpkin plays a significant role in the history of the U.S. and in providing a unique blend of nutrients to promote health, artificially produced pumpkin spice cannot make the same claims.

Cinnamon, Nutmeg and Clove … Oh, My!

The scent and taste, first released by Starbucks in 2003 in their now famous Pumpkin Latte, is not usually flavored with pumpkin. Rather, the flavors are a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, which are the traditional spices used in a pumpkin pie. Those scents trigger a strong emotional response in your brain enabling you to easily recall experiences.9 This emotional response that odors generate drives your decision to like or dislike something based purely on smell.

The scent of pumpkin spices has been popular in baked goods often reserved for the fall, especially in homemade products. Catherine Franssen, Ph.D., director of psychology at Longwood University, is a fan of the flavor and has an understanding of why this particular combination of spices elicits an emotional response. She commented to CNN:10

"Since these are popular spice combinations, it's very likely we would have encountered some or all of them combined in a favorite baked good in a comforting situation, like a family gathering, early in life. It's not just the pumpkin spice combo but that we've already wired a subset of those spices as 'good' very early in life."

Most mixtures of pumpkin spice typically include some combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, clove and allspice.11 Starbucks has released a new pumpkin spice product alongside their ever-popular Pumpkin Spice Latte this fall. In a press release, Peter Dukes, product manager who led the development of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, commented: "Nobody knew back then what it would grow to be. It's taken on a life of its own."12 The video below is a healthy alternative to a store bought Pumpkin Spice Latte.

However, while the popularity of the product may have taken the company by surprise, neuroscientists may have been able predict how well Americans enjoy pumpkin spice by evaluating their emotional response to scents and tastes that remind them of home and fall weather.

It's All About the Fall

Franssen believes it should come as no surprise that many people enjoy the fall weather.13 She believes this is the time of the year when your brain feels most comfortable and alive, explaining that predictable novelty is the reason for the experience. This term stems from interpersonal relationships and conflict resolution, describing the desire for both stability and change within the same relationship.14

In terms of describing why your brain enjoys the scents, smells and tastes that accompany fall weather, Franssen begins by explaining that your brain is hardwired to search for change in your environment as an early warning system to survival. When you encounter something new it may trigger a response in your amygdala, causing stress or anxiety. However, when you know this change is likely to happen, your brain may override the anxiety, leaving low feelings of stress you may interpret as excitement.

This is why many love riding roller coasters, watching horror movies or going skydiving. You enjoy the thrill of the experience while knowing there is very little risk. During the fall months there are many changes in the environment, many of which are expected from year to year. These changes also trigger associations with experiences you had in the past.

For instance, the changing leaves may remind you of pumpkins, Halloween, Thanksgiving and baking pies. Behind the feelings brought about by what you see, hear, feel and smell, are the release of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that increase your levels of contentment, pleasure and alertness. The release of these chemicals brings you into a heightened state of awareness, developing a feeling you associate with the events and foods you relate to fall weather.

Nearly all of your senses send electrical impulses through one area of your brain, the thalamus. Signals are then relayed to the cerebral cortex, which processes the information and plans any action that needs to occur15 — all your senses, that is, except for your sense of smell.

Neuroscience in Marketing

Your sense of smell is connected directly to the limbic system in your brain. This is a network of structures located near the middle of your brain, influencing your emotions and memories.16 From there, signals are relayed to the cortex where you cognitively remember the scent. However, by this time your emotional response has been triggered.17

Pleasant scents may affect your mood. Experiments using odorless placebo spray compared to fragrances have demonstrated that, although there is some response to the placebo when you anticipate the fragrance, the actual scent has a dramatic effect on improving your mood.18

Your preferences for scent are highly personalized and are connected to specific memories and associations you have made over the years. However, despite individual differences, there are significant generalizations advertisers have made, driving the desire for products. Franssen comments on the neuroscience of scent and advertising, saying:19

"When an odor or flavor — and 80 percent of flavor is actually smell — is combined with sucrose or sugar consumption in a hungry person, the person learns at a subconscious, physiological level to associate that flavor with all the wonderful parts of food digestion.

[For that reason] the pumpkin spice latte is actually, scientifically, kind of addictive. Not quite the same neural mechanisms as drugs of abuse, but certainly the more you consume, the more you reinforce the behavior and want to consume more."

In other words, while the scent of pumpkin spices triggers happy memories increasing the probability of a sale, it is the consumption of a product combined with the addiction to sugar that seals the deal on most edible products.

The interest in all things pumpkin in the fall months is evident in the promotion of products laced with pumpkin spice, such as hot drinks, cookies and butter. The popular trend even generated a hoax in 2014 when a Facebook meme reported Charmin toilet tissue would soon be released in a new pumpkin spice scent.20 Not soon after Charmin Company tweeted: "While we love it, we can promise you this. You will not be seeing #PumpkinSpice Charmin anytime soon. #StopTheMadness"

Combination of Sugar Addiction and Scent Memory Is a Powerful Tool

Many of the pumpkin spice flavorings are synthetic versions that contain a variety of compounds designed to trick your brain into thinking you consumed the natural mix of spices that flavor a pumpkin pie.21 While the natural spices are derived from plants and contain phytonutrients that promote health, the synthetic versions are a combination of chemical compounds manufactured in a laboratory and without any discernible nutrient value.

Instead, many of the compounds used do not have to be disclosed on the ingredient list22 and may actually pose a significant hazard to your health. The combination of your scent memory and the physical experience of consuming sugar may be enough for manufacturers to generate a trend that boosts their profits for years with little advertising costs. To protect their profits, the sugar industry has manipulated nutritional science information since the mid-1900s.

They were able to successfully cover up decades of scientific evidence proving the damage sugar causes and even successfully shifted the blame to saturated fats. Only recently has the popular media shone a spotlight on research dating back to the mid-1990s that proves saturated fats are the not the trigger for chronic disease but, in fact, sugar is.

In some people, sugar addiction may be as powerful as a cocaine addiction23 as it stimulates the same area of the brain and leads to both physical and psychological cravings.24 Some research has even suggested that sugar addiction should be treated as a form of drug abuse.25 No wonder advertisers have successfully linked your scent memory to a sugar addiction in order to develop a profitable trend that has continued to grow over nearly 15 years.

Benefits of Real Pumpkin Make It the Best Choice

In this short video you'll discover 10 health benefits from eating pumpkin seeds. While you can purchase them year round, consider harvesting the seeds fresh as you're carving your pumpkins this fall. Nearly every part of the pumpkin plant may be eaten, so adding them to your garden is great choice. Pumpkin seeds are rich in omega-3 fats, zinc, calcium, iron and an array of phytochemicals. Each of these helps to support your skeletal health. Tryptophan in the seeds may also help to boost your mood.

The bright orange color of the pumpkin comes from beta carotene content, including carotenoids that protect your cells against oxidative damage and lutein needed by your eyes. Additionally, the pumpkin is rich in vitamin A, providing you with nearly 245 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) in just one serving. That serving also provides you with 3 grams of fiber, 19 percent of the RDA for vitamin C and 16 percent of potassium.

Nutrients also include copper, manganese and riboflavin. Each of these nutrients, and more, have potent health benefits. Your body uses the nutrients in pumpkins to protect your heart, skin and eyesight.

A post-workout serving helps to re-energize your body with 564 milligrams of potassium, 142 milligrams more than the banana you may have reached for after your last workout. If you're unsure of how to add pumpkin meat to your nutritional plan, try my Pumpkin Chili with Chicken or my Chocolate Fat Bomb that fills you up, satisfies your sweet tooth and has pumpkin seeds to boot.

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