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Summer may still be on the calendar, but fall is already in full swing at coffee shops, bakeries and retail locations across the country thanks to the presence of pumpkin spice in a plethora of produce.
According to the ad publication Ad Age, at least $500 million is spent each year on pumpkin-flavored items in the United States.
So why do we love this particular flavor so much?
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It turns out we like to be reminded of fall and the warm feelings of family, home and nostalgia that the season brings — and our brains associate those warm feelings with this particular taste, psychologists and researchers say.
Matt Johnson, a Boston-based psychologist who specializes in applying psychology to marketing, shared neuroscience and marketing insights surrounding our love of this particular taste.
“The taste is so closely associated with the arrival of fall and the nostalgic, healthy vibe of both the family and the leaves that change,” he told Fox News Digital by phone.
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Johnson is the author of two books, “Blind Side: The (mostly) hidden ways marketing reshape our brains” and “Branding that Means Business”. He is also a professor of psychology at Hult International Business School in Boston and a lecturer at Harvard University.
Johnson noted that Starbucks started the pumpkin spice craze in 2003 with the introduction of its Pumpkin Spice Latte, saying the drink was “an instant success” and became “the most successful seasonal drink of all time.”
Starbucks has kept its Pumpkin Spice Latte (aka PSL) as a seasonal beverage — “one of the pivotal elements of its success,” Johnson said.
Johnson said we can take a closer look at “the neuroscience of taste” when we examine our love for this particular taste.
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“We are very, very visual creatures, but our sense of taste is one of our weakest senses,” he said.
Our sense of taste is actually “very impressionable,” Johnson continued.
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He explained that “we don’t taste objectively – we almost ‘hallucinate’ with our taste buds.”
The associations between fall and pumpkin spice are built in the medial temporal lobe, which we can think of as the brain’s “associative network.”
There have been many experiments to test the accuracy of people’s tastes, Johnson said. “For example, we really can’t tell wine [distinctions] almost as good as we think we can,” he said.
The associations between fall and pumpkin spice are built in the medial temporal lobe, which we can think of as the brain’s “associative network,” Johnson explains. The medial temporal lobe organizes the concepts we’ve learned, he said, and how they’re connected.
So when either idea — pumpkin spice or fall — is activated, he said, “it will automatically trigger the other, because they’re so close together in the medial temporal lobe.”
He added that product marketers “have successfully associated autumn with pumpkin spice to such an extent that we can’t have one without the other — the association affects perception itself.”
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Interestingly, pumpkin spice does not contain actual pumpkin.
“For me, the rise of pumpkin spice every year is the first signal that fun family moments are just around the corner.”
“There is no pumpkin content in pumpkin spice per se,” Ethan Frisch, herbal expert and owner of sustainable spice trading company Burlap and Barrel, told Verify.com, a website designed to help the public distinguish between real and false information.
Frisch noted that it is instead a blend of four to five spices: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and allspice.
As cars across the country line up at drive-thru windows for hot drinks and pumpkin spice treats, an everyday American who doesn’t care about pumpkin spice told Fox News Digital that she still likes to see the signage for products that don’t. contain it.
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“Although I don’t consume pumpkin spice, I like seeing billboards because it means fall is coming,” says Carole Purcell, of Columbia, Maryland.
“It reminds me that my favorite holiday, Halloween, will be here soon, and then Christmas.”
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She added, “For me, the rise of pumpkin spice every year is the first sign that fun family moments are just around the corner.”