Pumpkin spice (and everything nice): We love it because there’s brain science behind it
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It may still be summer on the calendar, but at coffee shops, bakeries and stores around the country, fall is already in full swing thanks to the presence of pumpkin spice in a plethora of products.
At least $500 million is spent on pumpkin spice-flavored items in the United States each year, according to advertising publication Ad Age.
So why do we love this particular flavor so much?
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It turns out that we love to be reminded of autumn and the warm feelings of family, home and nostalgia the season brings – and our brains associate those warm feelings with this special taste, say psychologists and researchers.
Matt Johnson, a Boston-based psychologist who specializes in the application of psychology to marketing, shared insights into the neuroscience and marketing surrounding our love of this particular flavor.
“The flavor is just so closely tied to the arrival of fall and the nostalgic, wholesome vibes of both family and the changing leaves,” he told Fox News Digital by phone.
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Johnson is the author of two books, “Blind Side: The (most) hidden ways marketing reshapes our brains,” and “Branding that Means Business.” He is also a professor of psychology at the Hult International Business School in Boston and a lecturer at Harvard University.
Noting that Starbucks started the pumpkin spice craze in 2003 with the introduction of its Pumpkin Spice Latte, Johnson said the drink was “an instant hit” and became “the most successful seasonal drink of all time.”
Starbucks has kept its Pumpkin Spice Latte (also known as PSL) as a seasonal drink — “one of the defining elements of its success,” Johnson said.
Johnson said we have a window into the “neuroscience of taste” when we examine our love for this particular flavor more closely.
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“We are very, very visual creatures, but our sense of taste is one of our weakest senses,” he said.
Our sense of taste is actually “highly impressionable,” Johnson continued.
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He explained that “we don’t taste objectively—we almost ‘hallucinate’ with our taste buds.”
The associations between autumn and pumpkin spice are built in the medial temporal lobe, which we can think of as the brain’s “associative network”.
There have been many experiments testing the accuracy of people’s sense of taste, Johnson said. “For example, we can’t really tell wine [distinctions] almost as good as we think we can,” he shared.
The associations between autumn and pumpkin spice are built in the medial temporal lobe, which we can think of as the brain’s “associative network,” Johnson explained. The medial temporal lobe organizes the concepts we’ve learned, he said, and how they fit together.
So when one of the ideas — pumpkin spice or fall — is activated, he said, “it will automatically trigger the other, since they share such proximity in the medial temporal lobe.”
He added that produce marketers “have successfully associated fall with pumpkin spice to such an extent that we really can’t have one without the other — the association affects the very perception.”
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Interestingly, pumpkin spice contains no actual pumpkin.
“To me, the emergence of pumpkin spice every year is the first signal that fun family times are just around the corner.”
“There is no pumpkin content in pumpkin spice alone,” Ethan Frisch, spice expert and owner of sustainable spice trading company Burlap and Barrel, told Verify.com, a website dedicated to helping the public distinguish between true and false information
Frisch noted that it is instead a blend of four to five spices: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and allspice.
While cars may line up at highways around the country to get hot pumpkin spice drinks and treats, one regular American who doesn’t care for pumpkin spice told Fox News Digital that she still likes to see the signage for products that contain it.
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“Even though I don’t eat any pumpkin spice products, I love seeing signs advertising it because it means fall is coming,” said Carole Purcell, of Columbia, Maryland.
“It reminds me that my favorite holiday, Halloween, is coming up soon, and after that, Christmas.”
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She added, “To me, the emergence of pumpkin spice every year is the first signal that fun family times are just around the corner.”