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Pumpkin Spice: The Science Behind our Fall Addiction


It’s that time of year again, where the leaves start to change and when the air begins to feel a little bit crisper. Sweater weather has arrived, which means ‘tis the season of pumpkin spice! Also known as fall. 

This beloved flavour is popping up everywhere: in our lattes, in our candles, in our cookies and even in our beer.

But what makes pumpkin spice the flavour of fall? Pumpkin?

Wrong. The funny thing is that in most cases pumpkin isn’t even an actual ingredient in this fall flavour. Usually pumpkin spice is a mixture of commonly used spices such as; cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove.


So what’s the hype with pumpkin spice?

As it turns out there are scientific reasons as to why we crave this flavour at this time of year, the first being: 


1. Nostalgia

One of the main reasons behind our seasonal addiction is the fact that our brains associate the smell of pumpkin spice with warm fuzzy feelings we remember experiencing every fall.

Here’s how it works: smell enters our nose and heads through the olfactory system. This system helps the brain process different smells and is also located in the limbic system (the brain’s emotional center). In the limbic system you can find the amygdala, which is associated with emotion as well as the hippocampus, which is associated with memory. This explains why our sense of smell is so strongly associated with memory.

 According to Dr. Alan Hirsch, a neurologist from Chicago, the nostalgia provoked from our sense of smell recalls emotions that our minds have treasured. In most cases they have been slightly modified to be somewhat more positive than they may have been in the past. This is why smelling pumpkin spice can take you back to that thanksgiving dinner where your whole family was gathered around a table full of delicious food (including pumpkin pie) laughing and having a great time. The smell of pumpkin spice is usually associated to good and happy times, which is why we take comfort in its arrival.



2. Sugary Science

A lot of pumpkin spice flavoured snacks are usually somewhat sugary. According to Dr. Catherine Franssen, an assistant professor of Psychology at Longwood University, the combination of a flavour or scent with sugar subconsciously trains the brain to remember the delicious taste. This is why when a hungry individual consumes flavourful yet sugary food; he or she is reinforcing this food consumption behaviour. The brain is a powerful organ. Imagining the best pumpkin pie you’ve ever had or even just reading this article about pumpkin spice may be enough to make you crave a “pumpkin spice something” as we speak.

Last but not least.


3. Limited-Time Offer

Yes, we all fall for it. Marketers love taking advantage of our FOMO (fear of missing out). As explained by Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology and marketing, scarcity is a powerful influencer when it comes to persuading customers. The mere fact that you can ONLY get pumpkin spice flavoured treats this time of year makes it that much more appealing.

We want what we can’t have. It’s as simple as that.

If this flavour were to become available all year round its novelty would wear off rather quickly. For example, did you know that the Cadbury Mini Eggs are available all year long here in Canada? I just found out and as yummy as they are, I will probably only start binge eating them right around Easter.

This Limited-Time Offer tactic is not used to sell more, but rather to bring customers in the door. Fun fact: Most people only order one pumpkin spice latter per season.



Don’t over think it. Pumpkin spice is delicious, and heck if it brings back great memories why not embrace the “basic” within us all and enjoy the last few weeks of this seasonal flavour.




About the author

Amanda Steski is an avid snacker and writer with Desk Nibbles.

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