Mindpath Health’s Zishan Kahn, M.D. discusses our brains while consuming pumpkin spice.

This Is Your Brain on Pumpkin Spice_Zishan Khan_Mindpath Health

The Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) returned to Starbucks menus on August 30th. As usual, it had some people saying #toosoon and others saying “right on time.”

The drink debuted in 2003 and has become as synonymous with the fall season as apple pie and, well, actual pumpkins. Pumpkin spice has extended beyond Starbucks menus into the grocery store. Sales of pumpkin-flavored groceries raked in $511 million in 2019, a 4.7% spike from previous years, according to Nielsen data.

“We are tasting, very literally, all of the associations that we have built with the pumpkin spice latte with fall; pumpkins, and wholesomeness… those nice, cozy feelings,” says Matt Johnson, PhD, a professor of consumer psychology at Hult International Business School in San Francisco, an instructor at Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education, and the author of Branding That Means Business.

How the Pumpkin Spice Latte became synonymous with fall

Johnson says Starbucks used emotions and neuroscience to market the Pumpkin Spice Latte as an autumn ritual.

One tactic Starbucks tapped into was exclusivity.

“They only ever do this time of year, so there is a close association of when you are seeing the pumpkin spice latte, it’s fall,” Johnson says.

It’s also become a tradition over the last nearly two decades. Is it really fall until you’ve sipped a PSL?

“We can’t think about fall without thinking about pumpkin spice latte, and we can’t think about pumpkin spice latte without thinking about the fall,” Johnson says.

When the brain “digests” the taste of a PSL — or even sees news that it’s back on Starbucks menus — it triggers wholesome memories that send warm, cozy vibes through the body.

“We are drawn to pumpkin-flavored items and other similarly nostalgic products because they remind us of moments in our lives that make us happy and bring us comfort,” says Dr. Zishan Khan, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health.

It’s all in your head

Some of the above may sound a bit silly, but it’s actually neuroscience.

Khan says that it’s important to define the hippocampus and amygdala first. The hippocampus is part of the limbic system and is critical for learning and memory.

“The hippocampus is particularly important in the formation of long-term, declarative memories, which we can consciously recall and contribute to how we perceive the world around us,” Khan explains.

The hippocampus is also strongly connected with regions of the brain that regulate emotion, which is the amygdala’s primary function.

“This explains why emotional memories can be so vivid,” Khan says. “This is why simply eating something can trigger a sense of recall in us even before we consciously remember something.”

The hippocampus also has hormone receptors that regulate appetite, digestion, and eating behavior.

“Eating certain foods activates the reward centers of our brains, which the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a key role in,” Khan says. “The hippocampus uses dopamine pathways to turn short-term memories into long-term ones. The brain’s reward mechanisms encourage certain behaviors, but this is only truly effective when reinforced by memories.”

A 2019 study indicated that eating foods we enjoy triggers a dopamine release and increases the desire to meet more.

Since the PSL and other pumpkin treats are linked with special occasions and seasons, the experience of eating them is rich not only in flavor but memories and emotions.

“Emotion and novelty make events more memorable, and when these events are tied to food in some way, it strengthens the power of those memories,” Khan says.

What the research says about comfort food

Though there isn’t research on the comfort of pumpkin flavors, scientists have looked at comfort food over the years.

A 2014 review pointed to research suggesting that we learn to associate food with comfort in infancy. It also indicated that food could help reduce negative feelings, such as stress and loss of control, and increase happiness.

Another older study from 2006 suggested that eating sweet foods can temporarily make us feel happier.

This may be why after 2.5 years of bad headlines, including the pandemic and economic turmoil, a warm beverage with a healthy dose of nostalgia may be just what people feel they need.

“During this time of uncertainty and stress, and especially with events that are largely out of our control, we crave consistency, predictability, and a sense of control,” says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich. “We find a sense of control and comfort through comfort foods or emotional eating.”

But the notion of comfort food isn’t a conclusive scientific fact. Research from 2017 indicated that, while comfort food may not be a myth, there are still uncertainties about it. And an earlier review from 2010 suggested people experiencing greater life changes were more likely to opt for an unfamiliar food item.

What to know about health and pumpkin treats

While the “food fight” over comfort food has yet to be settled, we know that emotional eating can have negative consequences. For example, one 2019 study of Finnish people ages 25 to 74 suggested that emotional eating was a risk factor for obesity.

If you’re struggling with emotional eating, Khan suggests working with a therapist and nutritionist.

However, if you’re simply looking for ways to balance your love of pumpkin with any health goals or concerns you may have, here’s what to know.

Pumpkin has health benefits too

Pumpkin-flavored foods aren’t just a treat for tastebuds, notes Dana Ellis Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD, a senior clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and author of Recipe for Survival. Hunnes says the health benefits of pumpkin include:

  • natural source of beta-carotene, which boosts vision
  • natural source of vitamin A, which can help the body fight infections
  • low in calories (about 40 calories per cup of raw pumpkin)
  • high in fiber, which Hunnes says makes it “filling and satiating.”

Food swaps

Though pumpkin may have nutritional value, some treats have high fat and sugar content. A grande (16 oz.) Pumpkin Spice Latte with 2% milk from Starbucks contains 390 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 50 grams of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends women limit daily sugar intake to 25 grams and men limit theirs to 36 grams.

“The spices themselves are very healthy,” Hunnes says. “It’s really the other ingredients—namely the sugar, the whipped cream, and the type of milk that determines the healthfulness of the latte.”

One way to decrease the calories and fat in a PSL is to opt for plant-based, such as almond or soy, or skim milk over whole or low-fat milk or cream. She also suggests foregoing whipped cream.

People can follow similar advice when baking — swap whole milk for a plant-based or skim option. For example, one cup of whole milk contains 8 grams of fat, skim milk doesn’t have any, and almond milk contains 2.34 grams of fat.

Hunnes uses about half the sugar recipes call for when making pumpkin pie and lowers the calorie count by using a graham cracker crust over a traditional crust which is heavy on butter.

“All-in-all, our pumpkin pie recipe often has 150 calories less per slice than a traditional pumpkin pie, and that can definitely add up,” Hunnes says.

Applesauce instead of oil is a way to keep pumpkin pie sweet but lower in fat and calories, Hunnes says.

Go ahead, treat yourself

Limiting sugar and fat most of the time can help improve health outcomes, such as lowering the risk of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. But denying yourself all of the time can also backfire.

Research from 2020 suggests people with restrained eating habits were more likely to have higher food intake when experiencing negative emotions.

And Hunnes says consuming the “real thing” can also play head games with us — in a good way.

“If we eat the real deal, and know it’s the real deal, we can feel that decadence around it and may be better able to enjoy it at a slower pace,” she says.

On the other hand, eating items marked as low calorie can trick our minds.

“Sometimes, eating the ‘lower calorie version’ of something, with its health halo, can actually lead us to eat more of it than we otherwise would have,” Hunnes says. “[This] can have the opposite effect and actually cause us to take in more calories than we would have had we just enjoyed the real thing.”

In other words, go ahead and toast to fall with the obligatory Pumpkin Spice Latte whenever you’re ready for it.

“It’s a nice treat to enjoy, and it’s seasonal,” Johnson says.

To view the complete article with sources and learn more about your brain on pumpkin spice, click here. 

Zishan Khan, MD

Frisco, TX

Dr. Zishan Khan is board-certified in child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry. Dr. Khan primarily treats children, adolescents, and young adults suffering from ADHD, anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues that often keep them from reaching their full potential. He works with patients of various cultural and professional backgrounds, helping people improve their lives and conquer their struggles. He prides himself on ... Read Full Bio »

Share this Article