Pumpkin spice latte illustrates how food engineering has a hold on our taste buds … and our memories.

Without food engineering, caramel ribbons in ice cream would be hard and brittle, breads would lack folic acid and pumpkin spice foodstuff wouldn’t be your favorite seasonal treat.

By combining microbiology, applied physical sciences, chemistry and engineering, food engineers take foods that can be detestable on their own merits and make them more palatable in terms of taste and mouthfeel. One of the best and most successful examples of this is the pumpkin spice latte.

In 2002, Starbucks asked its research and development team to create a seasonal beverage. After coming up with 100 concepts and whittling it down to four, one remained on top—the pumpkin spice latte. The result became Starbucks’ top-selling seasonal beverage of all time with 350 million purchased in 14 years.

And the pumpkin spice flavor hasn’t just been a success for Starbucks—though it started the craze. Pumpkin-spice-flavored foods have seen double-digit growth for several years, reaching nearly $361 million in 2014, according to Nielsen. The thing is, on its own, pumpkin won’t elicit this kind of fandom. However, with the help of food engineering, it is a food marketer’s dream.

Engineering the PSL taste

First of all, pumpkins have constituents that can be unpredictable and fickle. This is why pumpkin pies are not made with carving pumpkins; instead, the filling is made with a sweet squash that is less fibrous and watery. The spices are usually cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and clove or allspice, and they naturally contain approximately 340 flavor compounds.

The vast number of compounds makes it difficult to create flavor consistency, especially when dealing with large-scale production. So when it comes to making pumpkin spice flavoring, it is these spices that are distilled with steam or extracted with solvents.

Those natural spices are transformed into the ingredients on the food label:

  • Cinnamon becomes cinnamic aldehydes.
  • Clove and allspice become eugenol.
  • Nutmeg becomes sabinene.
  • Ginger becomes zingiberene.
  • Maple/brown sugar is speculated to become cyclotene.
  • Vanillin is also added.

Then the Maillard reaction is used; it’s a chemical reaction between amino acids (think proteins) that reduces sugars. It is this process that browns foods and gives them their flavor. This is basically how caramelization occurs and is fundamental to the formation of color in food products, such as pumpkin spice foods.

This process, plus the addition of sugar, improves taste by increasing or decreasing certain flavors in food, provides bulk that can contribute to mouthfeel and texture, and extends shelf life. This is a case when synthetic chemistry copies nature’s.

When food isn’t just about taste

There is another reason why pumpkin spice latte is so popular. As Catalina Maria Velez Argumedo, a food engineer and researcher at Cornell Food and Brand Lab, told BuzzFeed, the drink’s success also comes seasonality—people don’t tire of it, and nostalgia—evoking memories through flavors, aromas and textures. In particular, pumpkin spice evokes Thanksgiving, a time when friends and family gather. When buying pumpkin spice foods, an experience through the senses is purchased, she said.

Now whether this nostalgia can lead to overeating is another thing. Nostalgia hasn’t been linked to binging. However, emotional eating has. If you are grabbing a pumpkin spice latte after a particularly stressful day, you should be aware you may drown your feelings in its warm soft blanket of good memories via taste and smell.

“Stress tricks the mind into engaging in ‘neck-up eating.’ That is eating to satisfy emotions, not real physical hunger,” says Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D., director of transformational coaching at Premier Fitness Camp at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, California. “Fifty to 60 percent of women, for example, engage in ‘neck- up’ or emotional eating—not because they are hungry. The reward response in the brain is diminished due to stressful feelings, and this leads to overeating.”

So before you reach for that pumpkin spice late, pumpkin spice donut or even pumpkin spice popcorn, think about why you’re doing. If it is for the taste, enjoy! If you’re looking to feel better after a rough day, proceed with caution.

Photography: a_namenko, Thinkstock; HappyAlex, Adobe Stock; A. Aleksandravicius, Adobe Stock