Grocery store shelves are overrun by everything pumpkin spice this time of year from Pop-Tarts to cereal and even cream cheese. But what makes pumpkin spice a winning combination?

We asked Beverly Tepper, graduate program director and a professor in the Department of Food Science, in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, why the combination of spices – usually a mix of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves – is so popular.

Why is this combination so appealing? Does it taste the same to everyone or does it taste different to different people like cilantro and other strong flavors?

Pumpkin spice seems to be a polarizing flavor/aroma combination as some people love it and others hate it. It’s tongue tingling: spices stimulate the trigeminal nerve. Trigeminal stimulants like spices can strongly influence our liking or disliking of foods. Chili pepper is the classic example where some people love it, and others hate it.

But why the fixation on pumpkin spice?  Why not apple pie spice (which does not get the same attention)? I suppose pumpkin spice works better than apple spice as a flavoring ingredient in a range of foods and beverages (especially coffee drinks – like lattes). When Starbucks introduced pumpkin spiced latte 20 years ago, it caught on. It is now considered a seasonal flavor that consumers look for and has become a tradition.

Is there a scientific explanation for what makes the flavor combination work?

What makes it "work" might be its associations with emotions and memories, possibly evoking holiday times, family get togethers, cooking with our parents or grandparents. It has become a tradition and traditional favorites evoke positive emotions and memories that reinforce their consumption.

Are there other flavor combinations that have been as popular? 

Pumpkin spice seems to be in a class of its own.  There are other "classic" flavor combinations such as mint and chocolate, peanut butter and chocolate, apples and cinnamon, sour cream and onion – but they do not seem to evoke the same strong opinions.

Many people add pumpkin spice to pies and coffee. Any other foods it can be added to for a winning combination?  Do you have a favorite pumpkin spice recipe?

They seem to put pumpkin spice in everything. I’ve seen it in personal care products (lip balm) and household products (air fresheners). My only pumpkin spice favorite is the original – pumpkin pie.