Our digital and social media producer Rachel Rohr is back from a month-long trip cross-country, talking with young Americans.
There seems to be a new sign of autumn.
Gone are the days when changing leaves, Halloween and actual pumpkins announced the arrival of fall. Now pumpkin spice seems to be leading the charge.
Ten years ago, Starbucks introduced the Pumpkin Spice Latte. This year, McDonald’s introduced its own version, along with many other vendors who have rolled out pumpkin spice-flavored goodies.
But is there any pumpkin in these treats? Food scientist Kantha Shelke joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the pumpkin spice takeover.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
This week, the great Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote how she loves autumn except for two things: leaf blowers and pumpkins. Not the ones on the porch with candles, but Pumpkinpalooza, pumpkin as marketing monster.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARODY MOVIE TRAILER, "PUMPKIN SPICE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Why is every beer on tap a pumpkin ale? Why?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Beer is boring, friend. Let's spice things up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Something's going on. There's too much pumpkin.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Careful, Mr. Miller. There's layers at work here. You can't begin to imagine. Comfortable layers.
YOUNG: A trailer for the film "Pumpkin Spice" from the people over at Official Comedy. And you've noticed, right? Pumpkin waffles, pumpkin cream cheese, pumpkin parmesan pasta sauce? Turns out there's not a lot of pumpkin and often just the synthetic chemical compound of a spice. What, you think someone's grounding all that cinnamon?
Kantha Shelke is a food scientist at Corvus Blue LLC. That's a food science and research company. Kantha, have you been seeing this pumpkin incursion for a while?
KANTHA SHELKE: Yes, Robin. This growing flavor mania of pumpkin spice actually has been around for a very, very long time because pumpkins used to be a staple of many civilizations in the 14th and 15th century, just like potatoes and what we have with the various cereals today. And pumpkin used to be boiled.
Now those who had access to spices would add a little bit of spice to it just to make it better-tasting, whereas others just manipulated the flavor by the way they cooked it. So if you baked it and develop this caramelly(ph) note, it didn't have the cinnamon and the mace and the nutmeg that only the elite and the rich could afford, but pumpkin by itself was a flavor that many, many people loved and adored.
YOUNG: I love pumpkin all by itself. But you've been saying pumpkin spice. In a lot of the foods that we're now buying, a lot of the product that claims to be pumpkin, is there actually pumpkin in it?
SHELKE: Oh, no, not at all.
YOUNG: Oh, no.
SHELKE: There is no place in the formulation. Just think of it. You've got a coffee cup, you've got some coffee in it, then you've got the cream and you've got the other elements, the sweetness, et cetera. If you put a dollop of pumpkin into it, it would taste awful. It would break the emulsion. It would look gross. It wouldn't be good at all.
But what the folks at the various coffee shops and the flavor houses have done is very beautifully woven in the aromatic spices, the notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, allspice, anise, ginger, mace, cloves. And what's interesting is they also added vanilla, because in real pumpkin spice in pumpkin, they don't normally add vanilla or cardamom. But they add that over here just to give it that flavor. And you've got now this very comforting drink people love to have, and they yearn for it.
YOUNG: But there's no pumpkin in it. It's just the things that are evocative of what? What are those spices? I mean, they're calling it pumpkin, but what is the combination of calling it pumpkin and adding the spices of this time of year? What is that evoking for people?
SHELKE: What it is evoking is a certain kind of nostalgia. The neurogastronomy of it is a very simple one. Most people, especially from the United States or North America, associate the flavors of pumpkin spice with Thanksgiving, the holidays, good times that are very comforting. So these flavors, when they consume it, whether it's in an ice cream or whether it's in a cot coffee, it takes them instantly back to a time that was fun, that was nostalgic, that was great. And then reaching out for this simply for the nostalgia and the comforting thoughts.
YOUNG: Well, it's working. Starbucks introduced their wildly successful pumpkin spice latte 10 years ago. This year, they had a campaign, a marketing campaign, where in August, you could vote to get your Starbucks be the first to have the seasonal drink. You know, you could unlock your Starbucks. Others had to wait several weeks.
We have colleagues here who are completely depressed when they go to get the pumpkin spice latte and it's all out. Starbucks says it's their most popular seasonal drink ever. They've sold more than 200 million in the past decade. Are you seeing success like that elsewhere?
SHELKE: I believe so. This cornucopia of new pumpkin spice-flavored products, whether it's just the orange color or the combination of the various flavor compounds, is underlying on one little thing. And that is our tongue, which tastes about six to nine different tastes. And our nose, our nasal passages, that can detect and map millions of different odors and aromas very quickly tell our brain that this is something like pumpkin spice, and then our brain immediately substitutes and says, and let me provide you the pumpkin, the gourd behind it.
And, voila, you've got pumpkin spice in your mind. You're back into a comfort zone, and you're willing to dish out whatever the vendor is asking for that pumpkin-flavored whatever it might be: chips, you know, cookies, et cetera.
YOUNG: Well, or bagels. Einstein Bros and Noah's New York Bagels both have launched a pumpkin menu. I'm looking at containers of pumpkin seed brittle. And here's another bag of spiced pecan pumpkin bread mix. Those are both at Williams-Sonoma. Where else? We saw the pumpkin parmesan pasta sauce.
But some, we understand, do have pumpkin in them. Looks like the pasta sauce does. Dunkin' Donuts goes out of its way to say part of one doughnut has real pumpkin in it. What would you say to these vendors who want to jump on the pumpkin bandwagon? I mean, you've probably seen trends come and go. How do they keep this one going?
SHELKE: Well, you did miss out a few, Robin. You missed out air fresheners.
YOUNG: Oh, no.
SHELKE: And you - yes. There's steaks. You know, there are steaks that crusted with pumpkin spice. And they're finding that it's widely successful. People love it. And, of course, granola and whiskey, and all the bourbons that are coming out, and vodka.
So what are they looking for? They're all relaying on one thing, and that is especially today when times are so hard. People are very willing to shell out a little bit of their money for that instant comfort and gratification. And many of these vendors are doing a great job. Whether it's on popcorn or M&M's in just a...
YOUNG: Wait. Wait. We have to stop you there. M&M's has come out with a new pumpkin flavor.
SHELKE: People love M&M's. And what could be better than peanut butter M&M's? Pumpkin M&M's. Now, they may not be very popular all throughout because there's something called pumpkin spice fatigue. We get tired of it after a while. So they're just hoping that during the season, people are going reach out for these things. And then I think Mars will wait until next fall to reintroduce them, and then maybe introduce them in a bar form. I hope they'll do that.
YOUNG: Mars, of course, makers of M&M's. Boy, I thought it was the flu, but I think I have pumpkin fatigue already.
YOUNG: Kantha Shelke, if they do use actual pumpkin, that sort of is healthier.
SHELKE: Yes, but it will be very difficult to do. So it would be very difficult to make cookies and the kinds of cookies that you see out there, or M&M's, using pumpkins. It would require a total innovation to bring that, bring a new kind of product that has pumpkin in it.
But they don't have to really look very far because if you look at the Eastern culture, even the Middle East, where pumpkins - remember these are the region - the Spice Islands, the Middle East, India, China, et cetera - where they had access to spices from the 13th and 14th century and even before. They use the spices not only in sweets but also in their savories. So they use the spices in their meats, et cetera. And there are many dishes out there that have pumpkin that are for dessert but not with this signature pumpkin spice mix that as we know it in the United States.
YOUNG: Kantha Shelke, food scientist at Corvus Blue LLC, food science and research company, thank you so much. And, listeners, you've been tweeting us pictures. Jeremy, here's one. It's sort of like a fruit bar, only with pumpkin purportedly inside.
YOUNG: And it's called a pumpkin walks into a bar. That's one product. Arman Afagh(ph) writes that he had Trader Joe's Pumpkin Greek Yogurt. It tasted like ketchup.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
YOUNG: So, we'll post your pictures and Mary Schmich's great Chicago Tribune column at facebook.com/hereandnowradio. But meanwhile, Jeremy, you're the coffee drinker, the two of us. May I present you with your first pumpkin spice latte?
HOBSON: This is the real thing. Let me take a taste here. Oh, my God. That is sweet. And you know...
YOUNG: Are we suddenly - it's like Thanksgiving?
HOBSON: Yeah, it's bringing me back to the fact that I never had a costume for Halloween.
YOUNG: Oh, I'm sorry.
HOBSON: I think I was Santa Claus one year and a leprechaun another.
HOBSON: I really mixed it with all the other holidays.
YOUNG: Maybe these memories are not appropriate for you.
HOBSON: Oh, yeah.
YOUNG: That they're invoking. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.