The Science of Pumpkin Spice

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These days it seems as if the old adage, ‘pumpkin spice and everything nice’, has become ‘everything nice is pumpkin spice’. In recent years, pumpkin spice has permeated every corner of our lives from lattes, to candles, to yogurt, to even Jell-O! Our obsession with pumpkin spice is a curious one. Let’s explore why this quintessential autumn scent often triggers familiar, cozy memories that make us feel good!

Pumpkin Spice Deconstructed

Let’s start by investigating what exactly pumpkin spice is made of. Pumpkin spice consists of five ingredients: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and allspice. There is no pumpkin in pumpkin spice!

Cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum, is native to Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon). Cinnamon is also found in South America and the Indies. Cinnamon comes from the bark of, well you may have guessed it, the cinnamon tree, a tree that grows up to 18 metres. Cinnamon has a warm and slightly spicy taste.

Nutmeg, Myristica fragrans, is native to the Banda islands of Indonesia. It is a dark-leaved evergreen tree that produces two different spices, nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is an oval-shaped seed, and mace is the bright red webbing that surrounds the seed. It takes about five years for a nutmeg tree to flower. A mature tree, about 12 metres in height can produce about 2,000 nutmegs per year.

Ginger or Zingiber officinale, is native to southeast Asia and grown in warmer regions and tropics. Ginger is actually a rhizome, (an underground stem), not a root.  The ginger plant is an herb and is in the same family as turmeric and cardamom. Ginger can be found in many different culinary forms, raw, crystallized, dried, pickled, even oil.

Allspice, Pimenta dioica, is a dried aromatic berry native to West Indies and Central America. It is also known as the Jamaica pepper, myrtle pepper, and pimento. The flavour brings to mind a combination of spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, hence the name, allspice. Allspice berries are round and look very much like peppercorns.

Cloves, Syzygium aromaticum, were important in the earliest spice trade and are believed to be indigenous to the Moluccas, or the Spice Islands of Indonesia. Cloves are unopened flower buds that are dried. The name comes from the French word “clou” meaning nail.

Pumpkin Spice Recipe:

You can make your very own pumpkin spice mixture at home. Measure and add each of the five spices below to an airtight container.

Note: there is no pumpkin in pumpkin spice!

3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Explore food science at home. Download our free resource, Kid-Friendly Pumpkin Spice Latte and Hot Chocolate Recipe!

Our Sense of Smell and Memory

Our sense of smell is highly emotive. The experience of a certain smell flooding us with memories is all too familiar. Scents can trigger feelings of nostalgia and evoke feelings of pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction. They even have the ability to elicit negative feelings, too. The smell of pumpkin spice has been known to call up memories of spending time with family and friends, of being wrapped in blankets by a fire, of being generally happy and cozy.

How is the scent of pumpkin spice able to evoke such powerful memories? It begs the question, are scent and memory connected? The short answer is yes! Memory and scent are indeed closely linked because of our brain’s anatomy. Smell is processed in a different part of the brain than your other senses. The thalamus, the body’s information relay station, processes all senses, except smell. When it comes to sensing smells, the connection to the brain is less circuitous. Once receptors in your nose detect a smell, the signal is sent straight to the olfactory bulb which is connected to the amygdala and the hippocampus, (part of the limbic system). The limbic system plays a major role in controlling mood, behaviour, emotion, and memory. Smell and emotion are stored as one memory and memories linked to smells can be very vivid.

Babies have a keen sense of smell and are adept at detecting odours. Sense of smell is the most developed sense in children up until the age of 10, at which point, sight takes over.

Harnessing that evocative power of smell with pleasant memories can be a lucrative business. There is financial gain in developing a product infused with a scent that evokes the feelings of happiness, relaxation, serenity. The perfume industry and coffee industry have a long history of developing products that have the ability to conjure up emotions and feelings that are pleasant. Like the perfume industry, the coffee industry also has a history of developing products that make us feel pleasant and happy. Starbucks reportedly sells more than 20 million pumpkin spice lattes each year and has sold over 600 million lattes since the drink debuted in 2003.

Our sense of smell is one of the most powerful senses we possess. Which scent triggers pleasant memories for you? Is it leather? Chocolate? Fresh-baked bread?

Explore all your senses with a virtual hands-on workshop!

Sense of Wonder!

The world around us is a feast for our senses! Investigate sound and design your own shakers. Explore how our sense of taste and smell are connected. Discover the science behind depth perception and trick your eyes with 3D glasses. Now your interactions with the world will just make sense!

Discover Your STEM Career as a Food Scientist!

Ana Cristina, a Food Scientist

Meet Dr. Ana Cristina, a Food Scientist at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre at Niagara College!

In these videos, Dr. Ana Cristina uses science to investigate how to make the perfect brownie (viewers ages 5-9) or looks at pH levels in various tomato juice samples (viewers ages 10-13). In each video she also shares why she loves her job.

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