In 2013, Americans spent $308 million on pumpkin-flavored products. Pumpkin-flavored beer, pumpkin-flavored creamer, pumpkin breads, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin yogurt, pumpkin cream cheese, and pumpkin cider peppered the shelves of grocery stores around this great country.
But the crown jewel of this pumpkin berserker rage is what's known as the pumpkin spice latte, an unctuous, pungent, saccharine brown liquid, equal parts dairy and diabetes, served in paper cups and guzzled down by the liter.
The popularity of this drink, concocted by Starbucks in 2003, has single-handedly ushered in a new wave of imitators, pumpkin-spiced food objects like Oreos and the rumored pumpkin-spiced condom (despite reports, Durex isn't actually making this condom). At this point, we've reached peak pumpkin-spice and it might be as good a time as any to examine how we got to this point and where we go from here:
Is there pumpkin in a pumpkin spice latte?
No. What you get when you order a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks is espresso, water, whipped cream, milk (or soy milk), pumpkin spice, and, in addition, something called "pumpkin sauce."
According to Starbucks' online store, the ingredients for pumpkin sauce include sugar, condensed nonfat milk, high fructose corn syrup, annatto (a seed that produces a caramel, orangeish color), natural and artificial flavors, caramel color, salt, and a preservative called potassium sorbate.
So, when you're savoring your 49 grams of sugar (more than a can of regular soda) and 380 calories in a PSL (grande sized with whipped cream), the flavors you might be associating with pumpkin are actually a blend of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice — the kind of spices you'd use in a pumpkin pie.
So those spices are the real stars of the pumpkin spice latte?
Right. Pumpkin spice is a blend of spices that spice manufacturers sell. Going by the ingredients in The Old Farmer's Almanac, the spices in pumpkin spice are usually made up of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice, with occasional ingredient variations like cloves.
When did pumpkin and pumpkin spice get so popular?
When quantifying the pumpkin/pumpkin spice craze, you first have to look at Starbucks. Starbucks first debuted the pumpkin spice latte in 2003, and the company says that there have been over 200 million PSLs sold since then. And in that time between, the coffee maker has figured out a brilliant marketing scheme to get people interested — it's a combination of treating the drink's debut like a premiere and making the drink scarce by only offering it during a "season."
This "season" is a mirage. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice are available year-round. But like a McRib, the forced scarcity makes the PSL feel like a fleeting object and something that should be consumed before time expires.
But Starbucks isn't the only driving force behind pumpkin spice domination. Some think there are cultural forces and economic forces too. "Pumpkin became recognized as part of the comfort food trend during the recession in 2008," Suzy Badaracco, a certified chef who runs a company called Culinary Tides, which forecasts and analyzes food trends, told me.
"As we went into recovery, it ricocheted beyond bakery and pie and into beverage, milkshake, energy bars, and as a more legit side dish and soup ingredient. It has moved into a more experimental realm," she added.
Badaracco's observations make sense. In November of 2009, Americans weren't buying as much fresh produce as they were before. The Chicago Tribune explained that in times of economic distress, people gravitate toward comfort foods because of the good memories the dishes conjure up.
Foods like biscuits and dishes like spaghetti and meatballs enjoyed popularity during the 2008 recession. Pumpkin and pumpkin spices, of course, make many think of Thanksgiving and holidays.
In addition to the comfort food trend, Badaracco also explained that pumpkin flavors tie in to concurring trends like the rise of heritage meats (bison, rabbit, duck, etc.), the heirloom vegetable trend, and the Native American cuisine trend.
"The more trends something has cross ties too, the more successful it will be and the longer life cycle it will have," she explained.
Another reason we're seeing a growth in pumpkin popularity has to do with the business of flavor forecasting. Flavor forecasting is a practice where teams at companies like McCormick leverage their product knowledge (spices) to tell restaurants and businesses what types of flavors they think will be a hit in the next season or two.
David Sax, author of The Tastemakers, a book about the industry and complexity of food trends, specifically points to a 2010 flavor forecast by McCormick that spotlighted pumpkin spice as a holiday flavor.
"They're the biggest flavor and spice company in the world. They do [the flavor forecast] as an exercise in PR, and it eventually filters down in sales," he said, explaining that this flavor forecast goes out to big companies to help them decide what products to make and that McCormick benefits from companies wanting to cash in on pumpkin spice.
Big companies will usually consider McCormick's presentations because each sandwich, drink, or dessert is a major investment worth millions of dollars. And taking McCormick's advice could pay off.
"All of these big companies are looking to mitigate risk. They're wagering millions of dollars in each product launch," Sax said, explaining why McCormick's flavor forecast is seen as helpful.
The food industry isn't the only one that operates in this way. In fashion, there are trend forecasters and organizations like the Pantone Institute, which picks out what it thinks are trending colors for the next year.
So you may have bought your pumpkin milkshake or your "radiant orchid" shirt from a place like Burger King or the Gap, but really, it's companies like McCormick's and Pantone that steered those companies in that direction.
Just how popular are pumpkin and pumpkin flavors?
Starbucks hasn't been forthcoming with exactly how many pumpkin-spice lattes are sold each year. They've stuck to the talking point of over 200 million drinks sold since its inception. At $4 a drink, that's a lot of money being driven toward pumpkin.
But Starbucks isn't the only benchmark. There are also alcoholic beverages, baking mixes, bread, milk, ice cream, and pie filling. According to Nielsen, US pumpkin-flavored sales came in at $308 million, up from $290 million in 2012. While coffee and creamer make up a substantial part of that, it's actually pie filling that makes up the lion's share of sales:
Another facet to consider is the "pumpkin season", a false season that companies like Starbucks implement. Again, Starbucks isn't forthcoming about when or how many PSLs it sells — it just tells you the drink is popular. But if you look at when pumpkin beer is sold, it's very clear that people buy the beer during a specific time of year:
Seeing that the pumpkin-flavored binge begins in the middle of July, there should be no question as to why Starbucks unleashed the PSL in August this year. But there are other products that are gaining. In 2013, Nielsen looked at the pumpkin-flavored products that showed the most growth from 2011 to 2012 and found that cider and frozen goods made massive gains:
It remains to be seen if this pumpkin momentum carried on to 2013 and will continue in 2014.
Last questions: Am I a bad person if I like pumpkin? Have I been duped?
Though PSLs have become the beverage associated with basic humans, you aren't a bad person for drinking one. Taste is taste — think of all the horrible monsters who like eggplant. There are worse things in this life than liking a PSL (e.g. murder).
You do you. Just brace yourself for the oncoming guava onslaught.