A Flavorist Explains How Pumpkin Spice Took Over The World

As I write this, it is 91 degrees in Chicago. If I'm dreaming of any beverage, it's a nice cold glass of lemonade, or maybe frozen coconut limeade, something sweet and tart and refreshing. But refreshing citrus drinks are passe. We have now officially entered pumpkin spice season; this year, in fact, saw the earliest release of the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte ever. The absolute last thing I want is a steaming hot cup of milk with espresso and warming spices. But here we are. I got on the phone with Marie Wright, Chief Global Flavorist at ADM Nutrition, who previously demystified hard seltzers for us, to talk about why everybody loves pumpkin spice so darned much and if it will ever be dethroned as the flavor of autumn.

The Takeout: It seems strange to me that so many people love pumpkin spice when pumpkin pie itself is so... divisive.

Marie Wright: I wonder if people would even eat pumpkin pie if it doesn't have pumpkin spice in it. Pumpkin doesn't really taste like much. It's nice in ravioli, but we have lots of cheese to counteract it. But pumpkin spice is a comfort flavor, a nostalgic flavor. They're warm flavors, they make us feel comforted, warm, relaxed. The combination of what's in pumpkin spice—cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and good pumpkin spice has allspice as well. It's very fragrant. All of them are very nostalgic flavors, very comforting. Ginger is comforting even from a digestive perspective. There's a relationship between flavor and memories and emotions. Where we store all the information in our brains about flavor is the same place that evokes emotion and memories. It goes into so many applications as well. Everyone is bringing their latte out early this year.

TO: Why is that? It's still summer!

MW: It's COVID, for sure. It's very well known in the industry that everyone is really looking to comfort foods, comfort flavors. We've all been very anxious. We still have a very uncertain time ahead of us. We're seeking a permissible indulgence, we're seeking foods that make us feel good, that give us some kind of reprieve from this anxious time. It's very on-topic. It'll be interesting to see how long the season is, how long they extend it beyond what they normally would. We're looking for that latte, warm spices make you feel better. Spices have a very nice impact on us and the way we feel. Does that seem crazy? I think even more so, this year, pumpkin spice has become attractive. There is a hard seltzer—I don't know if it's been launched yet, but it's going to have pumpkin spice. There's a lot of excitement around pumpkin spice.

TO: We at The Takeout were wondering why Starbucks and all those other places don't embrace more late summer flavors, like plums or even apples, and instead jump straight to pumpkin spice.

MW: Apples don't do quite as well as pumpkin spice. There are lots of lovely things you can do with apple and apple cider, but pumpkin spice is more reminiscent of holiday time. It really is about nostalgia. An apple spice latte doesn't really work. Apple notes don't go that well with that kind of beverage. It's not so compatible with coffee. I supposed it could be done well, if you put a few citrus notes in there. It is really indicative of the versatility of pumpkin spice that it's going into lots of products. I don't feel nostalgic about apples. Do you?

TO: I do. Mostly caramel apples.

MW: Caramel apples definitely are on the up. The spices in a chai are also really lovely in a latte, it works really well. And trends kind of catch on. If people think of pumpkin spice, they think about holiday time, they get warm, they get excited.

TO: Has pumpkin spice caught on in other parts of the world? Or are they all laughing at us?

MW: We have warming spice in the UK and the Commonwealth. They do laugh at the pumpkin pie. They're horrified at it. It doesn't even look attractive. The first Thanksgiving dinner I was invited to, I went for the apple pie.

TO: Will pumpkin spice ever be dethroned as the flavor of autumn?

MW: I don't know if pumpkin spice is going to be dethroned, that might be a bit of a stretch. You talk about caramel apple, and gingerbread is a very popular compendium. People don't think pumpkin spice has ginger in it, but it does. Some people won't eat ginger, but they eat pumpkin spice. So gingerbread is an up and coming flavor. Also peppermint. I saw last year there was a shake, white chocolate mocha peppermint. It was absolutely insanely delicious. You think about peppermint and the twists on peppermint, it could definitely be a contender.

Kicking out pumpkin spice might be a stretch. Sometimes I think, pumpkin spice again, can't we have something more exciting? It would be nice to have something not so much on the spice side. Smoked butterscotch felt very warm, very fall-like and wintery. Maybe it doesn't have the link to memories of childhood, but I think it might be a new contender. Fig is getting more popular, too, spiced fig. It has to be in a latte to resonate, doesn't it? You could get apple pie working well, if you could get the pie notes. Maple might work. But I think pumpkin spice has some life left in it.

TO: What did we have in the fall before pumpkin spice? I don't even remember anymore.

MW: Coffee culture has only exploded in the past 20 years. The latte thing started with vanilla and hazelnut. Hazelnut has been dethroned, hasn't it? You would be thought to be out of the '90s if you had hazelnut. It's funny to think about. It's such a weird thing to be fashionable. It's funny to think that pomegranate was everywhere. Everything was pomegranate. Acai has also gone out of vogue.

TO: But they were magical superfoods!

MW: [Laughs.] I know. Then we started to get more flavor experimentation. Chai and spiced lattes kind of hit. Mocha has always been popular.

TO: It's hard to beat chocolate.

MW: I do put some money on mocha peppermint. I couldn't believe how well it tasted. If you're a big company like Starbucks, Dunkin', or McDonald's, have to appeal to the masses. If you introduce something, you have to sell a lot of it. This year the message is, "Don't worry, people, I know COVID's here, but you have your pumpkin spice latte."

I like the idea of gradually making flavors warmer. From summer, you can transition from cold drinks, like adding cardamom to citrus. But cardamom is still is out of the mainstream.

TO: Last year Hormel released Pumpkin Spice SPAM. Do you think pumpkin spice has a future in savory or salty snack foods?

MW: We associate pumpkin spice with sweet, but it's not sweet intrinsically. We think of it for baking, but you can use it in savory dishes. It's very doable. Pumpkin spice chicken, curries. You could imagine a samosa with some pumpkin spice in it. The name is one thing, isn't it, but the ingredient allows itself such versatility. That blend is so aromatic and fragrant and delicious.

Potato chips? Maybe. Certainly snack foods, like bars. Mac and cheese I could imagine. You think about nutmeg and cinnamon. I use a lot of spices in my cooking, and little twists do make a difference. You could certainly see that. I think we'd eat it. I'm pretty sure we would. Little goldfish? We could be onto something here.