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Buried beneath the deluge of lattes, limited-edition snack foods and baked goods, the autumn spice blend known as “pumpkin spice” has a nutritious foundation. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOE URBACH

Pumpkin Spice & everything nice

It’s finally the fall season. A time for beautiful changing leaves, cooler temperatures overnight, perhaps even fall sweaters, and of course, the revival of some people’s favorite flavor – pumpkin spice. For those who don’t know what pumpkin spice is, it usually refers to all the spices that can be used in a pumpkin pie; things like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and ginger or clove. And as soon as you hear the word “pumpkin spice” the thing most people think of, at least on college campuses anyway, is the pumpkin spice latte.

Experts say pumpkin spice seasoning involves some “incredible chemistry” that can produce a nostalgic aroma as well as a comfortable feeling. That is most likely why so many of us crave anything with pumpkin spice in it.

You can order a pumpkin spice latte just about any way you want. With skim milk, soy milk, almond milk, or more. You can order it iced or extra hot. You can order it with whipped cream or without. But no matter how you order it, each glass also comes served up with a heaping dose of feel-good nostalgia.

“They taste like a warmblanket feels,” said Joanna Wheeler Johnson, a school psychologist in Georgia.

“It’s really the smell, not the flavor that I love,” added Chelsea Murphy of San Marcos. “I always buy at least one pumpkin spice latte at the beginning of autumn weather. Then, I remember that I don’t actually like the super sweet taste.”

The pumpkin-spiced craze is about 15 years old and has seen an acceleration in popularity since its earliest days. In 2003, Starbucks introduced their famous pumpkin spice latte, which now has its own verified Instagram and Twitter accounts, if you can believe that!

“Nobody knew back then what it would grow to be,” said Peter Dukes, the Starbucks product manager who led the development of the pumpkin spice latte, in a statement before the 2017 pumpkin spice latte return. “It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Before the coffeehouse conglomerate introduced their famous fall concoction, the seasonal scent was primarily used for candles and home fragrances. Now, however, pumpkin spice flavorings are in almost every type of food you could imagine, from Cheerios to Oreos, pancake mixes and protein bars. If you think this pumpkin spiced insanity is a prime example of marketing done right, well, you might be correct. But there’s also some science to explain why we’re all lining up around the corner the day Starbucks drops their first cup of pumpkin spice latte.

“Spices alone do not create the pumpkin spice latte magic,” said Dr. Kantha Shelke, a food science communicator with the Institute of Food Technologists. “The almost addictive taste and aroma develops only when these spices are cooked or baked with pumpkin, cream, butter and sugar. It is this flavor combination that companies have replicated in the popular pumpkin spice latte using extracts and flavors.”

Companies know people pay for comfort and nostalgia in food, and they’re more than happy to deliver it in the form of pumpkin spiced goods.

“The human brain is adept at identifying aromas quickly in terms of when they were last encountered,” Shelke said. “In Western culture, the aroma of a baking pumpkin pie immediately transports people to all the warm and friendly times associated with pumpkin pie – holiday gatherings, families, celebrations, treats, sweets, things that childhood memories are made of.”

Kristen Hovet, a Vancouver-based science journalist and yoga instructor, said the addictive nature of pumpkin spice also goes to a biological reaction we have when we eat these foods.

Hovet learned during yoga teacher training, including some courses on Ayurveda (a holistic healing approach), that pumpkinspiced products come with many healthful ingredients.

“These four main pumpkin spice ingredients all have warming properties and increase circulation,” Hovet told Healthline. “This is perfect for cooler or cold weather, when our circulation slows down. A reduced flow of oxygen can make you feel tired and lethargic, but after having a pumpkin spice latte or another pumpkin-spice flavored food or beverage, our blood vessels expand and we feel warmer and more energized.”

I believe it’s this pleasure sensation, as well as the memories the flavors evoke, that have us reaching for every pumpkin-spiced food we can find. The warmth of the mixture is an ideal comfort during cooler weather, too. That, and the fact that sometimes these foods really are just plain tasty! But you know what? There really are some health benefits to pumpkin spice that we can all enjoy, too.

If you don’t have the five bucks to offer the green apron-clad baristas, that’s OK. Hovet offers a few ideas for enjoying the benefits of the spices without shelling out major cash.

“I love sprinkling pumpkin spice into my oatmeal on cold mornings,” she said. “Another favorite is pumpkin spice cookies!”

What you may not know about your pumpkin spice is that there are a couple of really surprising health benefits. According to a study done by the Journal of Medical Foods, of the most potent herbs and spices on the planet, three are cloves, cinnamon and allspice, which are also three of the ingredients that go into making a good pumpkin pie spice. Another point, is that pumpkin spice (all mixed together) is also listed among the most potent herbs on the planet due to the medicinal benefits of its many different spices combined and working synergistically to provide more benefits to our bodies than each of its parts can provide individually. Let’s take a quick look at some health benefits you can get from the spices in your pumpkin spice mix.

Cinnamon - Cinnamon has a history of being used to spice up both food and medicine. It has a number of different medicinal properties that keep the body healthy and strong. It possesses anti-clotting agents, plus it has a real positive effect on the blood and in and some circumstances can be used to prevent unwanted clumping of blood platelets. It also helps lower cholesterol, keeps your arteries remain healthy, and can aid in managing blood sugar levels.

Ginger - Ginger is a natural remedy for nausea, kind of like how you drink ginger ale when your stomach is upset. You can also use ginger to help improve the absorption and assimilation of essential nutrients in the body, not to mention that its often used as an anti-inflammatory agent. According to some research, ginger also has some cancer preventative measures, sort of similar to chemotherapy!

Nutmeg - Next on our list, nutmeg is apparently really great for digestion. It also has the added benefit as a sleep aid, reducing the effects of insomnia. One positive health benefit is that it processes the oils, myristicin and macelignan, which have been proven to reduce the degeneration of neural pathways and cognitive function in the brain; something that usually afflicts those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Allspice - Finally there is allspice. Allspice is not just a combination of spices used in pumpkin pie spice. It’s also a spice product that originates from an evergreen in Central America and Caribbean islands that ironically smells like a combination of black pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. Traditionally this spice has been used to treat and prevent infections. It can also help with colds, chills, and bronchitis, as it aids in opening the airways and inhibits the over-production of mucus. While holding some digestive benefits, as well as a mild pain reliever, allspice has in some cases exhibited antioxidant properties and helped in fighting depression.

So yes, buried beneath the deluge of lattes, limitededition snack foods and baked goods, the autumn spice blend known as “pumpkin spice” has a nutritious foundation. And while it’s wise – for the sake of our waistlines – to back off on those pumpkin spice Frappuccino’s (400 – 650 calories per 16 oz serving – ouch!), ‘tis the season to take advantage of the health benefits of this ever-popular fall flavor combination.

Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

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