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It still may be summer on the calendar, but at coffee shops, bakeries and retail locations around the country, autumn is already in full swing thanks to the presence of pumpkin spice in a plethora of products.
At least $500 million is spent on pumpkin spice-flavored items in the United States each year, according to advertising publication Ad Age.
So why do we love this particular flavor so much?
Turns out, we love to be reminded of fall and the warm feelings of family, home and nostalgia the season brings — and our brains associate those warm feelings with this particular flavor, psychologists and researchers say.
Matt Johnson, a Boston-based psychologist who specializes in the application of psychology to marketing, shared insights into the neuroscience and the marketing around our love of this particular flavor.
“The flavor is just so closely tied to the arrival of fall and the nostalgic, wholesome vibes of both family and the leaves changing,” he told Fox News Digital by phone.
Johnson is the author of two books, “Blind Side: The (mostly) hidden ways marketing reshapes our brains,” and “Branding that Means Business.” He’s also a psychology professor at Hult International Business School in Boston and a lecturer at Harvard University.
Noting that Starbucks started the pumpkin spice craze in 2003 with the introduction of its Pumpkin Spice Latte, Johnson said the drink was “an instant success” and became “the most successful seasonal drink of all time.”
Starbucks has kept its Pumpkin Spice Latte (also known as PSL) as a seasonal beverage — “one of the crucial elements of its success,” said Johnson.
Johnson said that we have a window into “the neuroscience of taste” when we examine our love of this particular flavor more closely.
“We are highly, highly visual creatures, but our sense of taste is one of our weakest senses,” he said.
Our sense of taste is actually “highly impressionable,” Johnson continued.
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 a lot of experiments testing the accuracy of humans’ sense of taste, said Johnson. “For example, we really can’t tell wine [distinctions] nearly as well as we think we can,” he shared.
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,” explained Johnson. 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, since they share such close proximity in the medial temporal lobe.”
He added that product marketers “have successfully associated fall with pumpkin spice to such an extent that we can’t really have one without the other — the association impacts perception itself.”
Interestingly, pumpkin spice contains no actual pumpkin.
“For me, the emergence of pumpkin spice every year is the first signal that fun family times are just around the corner.”
“There’s no pumpkin content in pumpkin spice on its own,” Ethan Frisch, spice expert and owner of sustainable spice trading company Burlap and Barrel, told Verify.com, a website dedicated to helping the public distinguish between true and false information
Frisch noted that it is instead a blend of four to five spices: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and allspice.
While cars may be lining up at drive-thru windows around the country for warm pumpkin spice beverages and treats, one everyday American who does not care for pumpkin spice told Fox News Digital that she still likes seeing the signage for products that contain it.
“Even though I don’t consume any pumpkin spice products, I love seeing signs advertising it, because it means fall is coming,” said Carole Purcell, of Columbia, Maryland.
“It reminds me that my favorite holiday, Halloween, will be here soon, and after that, Christmas.”
She added, “For me, the emergence of pumpkin spice every year is the first signal that fun family times are just around the corner.”