What is ‘pumpkin spice,’ anyway? And why do we crave it?

Each fall, as leaves turn golden and the crisp autumn air carries the scent of pine, Catherine Franssen waits for her husband to bring home the latest pumpkin spice-flavored concoction he has discovered at the grocery store.

“My husband — whose favorite pie is pumpkin; he’ll eat it year-round — thinks the pumpkin spice craze is funny and brings home all sorts of odd pumpkin spice items to try,” said Franssen, assistant professor of psychology and director of the neurostudies minor at Longwood University in Virginia.

“I think I ended up eating the entire box of pumpkin-spiced Cheerios last year after the rest of the family tasted and rejected,” she said. “They were pretty good.”

Franssen called the current trendiness of pumpkin spice “a fantastic example of the psychology of consumer behavior and fads.” She knows that the sweet smell and tantalizing taste of pumpkin spice can trigger a nostalgic emotional response in her brain and the brains of many other consumers, she said.

After all, “this spice blend has been used in popular baked goods for quite some time, but mostly in home-baked goods,” said Franssen, who wrote a 2015 blog post in the Huffington Post about the science behind pumpkin spice.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

In other words, if the pumpkin spice blend — or a synthetic version — that has been added to your favorite food item reminds you of a baking pumpkin pie at grandma’s house, then it probably did its job.

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