It has become the Elvis of flavors. Love it or hate it, people just can’t stop talking about it.
We set out to understand how and why a fancy coffee proliferated into a half-billion-dollar market niche that is as much a part of the holiday season as elves on the shelves and, say… oxygen. Like Christmas itself, pumpkin spice launches are coming earlier every year. In 2018, sales began their uptick in late August.
Believe it or not, Starbucks began serving Pumpkin Spice lattés back in 2003 and—here’s the best part—they started adding actual pumpkin juice to it in 2015. We weren’t sure if it was still a big deal until we saw Starbucks’ live countdown to the first latté of the season on Facebook a few weeks ago.
Over the years the industry has added pumpkin donuts, bagels, muffins, and hamburgers and chips; even M&Ms, Milanos, and Cheerios if you can find them. Pumpkin-spice beers and liqueurs are out there, as are yogurts, salty snacks, almonds, and cheeses. Yes, even cooking spray, dog food and toothpaste, and we haven’t even started on the air freshener market.
Kantha Shelke, a food scientist at the Institute of Food Technologists says, “Over time, nostalgia, clever marketing, media coverage and hype by companies like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Hallmark have led us to feel comforted by the thought. Pumpkin itself is not actually a favorite food. Children and many adults often avoid pumpkin as they do rutabagas and other root vegetables,” she says.
Still, we humans are easily led by our senses and the scent of pumpkin spice has become seasonal, like pine, holly berry, and fireplaces. It makes us remember that we’re supposed to be happy and in a giving state of mind.
It’s actually the “spice”
The flavor of pumpkin spice isn’t actually the pumpkin. What we’re really smelling (and reacting to) is the spice mix of cinnamon, cloves, dried ginger, and sometimes nutmeg and other spices.
Food historian Dr. Megan Elias says Americans have used spice combos from Medieval European culinary traditions to add flavor to pumpkins for years.
“Most people couldn’t afford those spices regularly until the 20th century, so spiced pies and cakes were holiday fare. Pumpkin is a late fall crop, so there’s a lot of it at Thanksgiving. The trend is very new, but the spicing combination is very old,” she says.
The proliferation of pumpkin spice hasn’t done much for actual pumpkins, however. Fresh pumpkin sales, outside of the photo ops at pumpkin patches, have dropped in the past decade. Elisa says history suggests pumpkin-spice products are here to stay and may eventually become available all year.
In case you think this is a new thing, pineapple was a big deal in the 1950s, just after Hawaii became a state; and some of us may remember when bubble gum was the flavor of everything in the 1980s. It was a Hubba Bubba time! If I ever figure out the acai berry… I’ll write about that too.
But, never fear, because producers use such small amounts of genuine flavor compounds in their products, there is not likely to be a shortage of pumpkin any time soon, so you’ll be able to enjoy pumpkin pancakes, ice cream, Yankee candles, and more, for a long time to come.