There's a Science-Backed Reason People Are So Obsessed With Pumpkin Spice

According to a psychologist and a nutritionist.

Updated 09/20/19
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It may still be too hot for shearling and cashmere, but if you look closely, there are definite signs of fall in the air. A handful of yellow leaves on the trees outside your window, the sun setting earlier, slightly cooler days… oh, and pumpkin everything, everywhere.  

Starbucks rolled out their infamous pumpkin spice latte before September hit, and if you walk into your local grocery store, you’ll likely find people fighting over the limited supply of canned pumpkin puree. Restaurants are adding pumpkin pancakes to their breakfast menus, and even our cleaning supplies are getting the fall pumpkin makeover.

But as we roll into another pumpkin-scented fall, we can’t help but wonder: Where did our collective societal pumpkin obsession come from, and why hasn’t it gone anywhere? Below, find the science-backed answers.

Pumpkin is only "in" for a short amount of time.

pumkin spice health
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As human beings, we’re hard-wired to flock toward things that are less available. This phenomenon was first studied by psychologist Jack Brehm in 1966, who found that people were a lot more likely to say they missed a record they previously hadn’t cared about much when they were told it was unavailable. And it makes sense: Think about a romantic interest who suddenly seemed more attractive once they stopped giving you attention, or the piece of toast you can’t have now that you’re gluten-free. The same is true of pumpkin-flavored products—just knowing they’re only available for a few months out of the year makes people all the more obsessed with them.

Then there’s the nostalgia factor. The sugar and spice combination used in the majority of pumpkin spice products (even if they don’t contain actual pumpkin) often evoke happy, comforting childhood memories. "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," Catherine Franssen, assistant professor of psychology and director of the neurostudies minor at Longwood University in Virginia, says"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." 

Pumpkin-flavored products are often high in sugar, and sugar is addictive.

pumkin spice latte sugar
 Stocksy

Of all the pumpkin spice products out there, it’s safe to say the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte takes the cake in terms of popularity, and it’s also fair to give the coffee chain the credit for launching pumpkin mania when it rolled out the first PSL in 2003. While there’s no doubt the sugar and spice flavor combo give us the warm fuzzies, it’s also important to remember these lattes are packed with sugar—and sugar has been compared to cocaine in terms of how addictive it is. 

And from a nutritional standpoint, this PSL obsession of ours isn’t the best news—especially because the amount of sugar in them means we keep coming back for more. “A grande 2% pumpkin spice latte with whipped cream has 380 calories, 0 grams of fiber and 50 grams of sugar,” says nutritionist Tamar Samuels. “That’s equivalent to almost 13 teaspoons of sugar, which most people would never put in their coffee. You could eat a small meal equivalent to that amount of calories, and given that pumpkin is a fiber-rich food, the lack of fiber in this drink is disappointing.” 

Still, there's some good news...

is pumpkin healthy
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OK, so we know the ever-popular Starbucks PSL is terrible for us. But if we take out all the sugar, pumpkin on its own is actually pretty healthy, according to Samuels. “It’s nutrient dense, high in fiber and relatively low in calories,” she explains. “Pumpkin is one of the best sources of beta carotene, a potent antioxidant that gives the vegetable its orange hue. Beta carotene gets converted to vitamin A in the body, which helps protect our cells against oxidative damage from free radicals. Research has found that diets rich in vitamin A may reduce the risk of getting certain cancers (skin, breast, liver, colon, prostate, and other sites).”

She adds that pumpkin is an excellent source of potassium, which Americans are typically deficient in. “Research has found that diets high in potassium also decrease the risk of high blood pressure and stroke,” she says. That being said, it’s important to hunt down pumpkin products in their purest form, like boxes and cans (but look for BPA-free!) and beware of pumpkin mixes, where you’ll run into the sugar problem all over again. “These days there are healthy and tasty alternatives to just about everything, and making your own pumpkin pie mix can go a long way in terms of your health,” says Samuels. 

Feeling brainwashed by the pumpkin industry yet? That’s fine. As long as you’re not overdoing on the PSLs, feel free to make 2019 the fall when you consumed all pumpkin everything… again. 

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