On Trend with Our Taste Buds: Pumpkin Spice

Pumpkin spice season is well underway, heralded this year by the Aug. 27 arrival (yes, we said August) of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte (#PSL). If you are worried about missing out, you aren’t too late to snag a bag of pumpkin spice dog treats for your pup or some pumpkin spice hummus to eat with your lunch. These sometimes-baffling pumpkin-flavored items are indicative of the spice’s firm grasp on America’s collective fall conscience. And there’s no denying it has staying power. Nielsen data showed that from August 2017 to August 2018, sales of products with “pumpkin” in the name reached $488.8 million, a five-year high and an increase of 15.5% growth over the previous year. Manufacturers are trying to imbue their offerings with subtle notes of nutmeg and clove, pushing out pumpkin spice versions of every product imaginable. The result is palpable; in the U.S., the spice has become known as the signature taste of fall.

It’s Not Just a Fad, Mom

Despite the hundreds of new pumpkin products released each year, the BBC says this trend shows no signs of waning. In an article from 2015, they spoke with a food historian who pointed to other historical flavor trends, like bubblegum flavor in the 80s or pomegranate in the early 2010s. And while those flavors have fallen into relative obscurity, experts say the pumpkin-spice trend continues unabated. The answer, says Forbes, is simple: scarcity. Consumers know they’ll only be able to get their hands on a Pumpkin Spice Latte for a few short months, driving demand and keeping the trend from overstaying its welcome.

Doing the Hard Work So You Don’t Have To

Here at Anderson Partners (AP), we’re not so sure that everything should be flavored with pumpkin spice. However, in the spirit of being on the very cusp of food ingredient research, we knew what we had to do. We needed to get our hands on some of these pumpkin-flavored items to see which products live up to the hype. (Editor’s note: Despite our best efforts, we were unable to acquire a can of Pumpkin Spice Spam – which is a real thing – because it sold out hours after launching.) To that end, we assembled our crack team of expert taste testers, purchased a variety of seasonally flavored items and asked everyone to submit their feedback via anonymous survey. Our offerings were as follows: Pop-Tarts Frosted Pumpkin Pie, Cheerios Pumpkin Spice, AE Dairy Harvest Pumpkin Egg Nog, Oikos Pumpkin Pie Flavor Not-So-Traditional Greek Yogurt and International Delight Pumpkin Pie Spice Coffee Creamer.

Winners and Losers

The results were…interesting. Pop-Tarts Frosted Pumpkin Pie was the clear winner, with nearly everyone agreeing it had the best flavor. We received a variety of feedback on this one, but our favorite was from someone who wrote that the taste of these Pop-Tarts was just enough to prevent them from purchasing and eating an entire pumpkin pie by themselves. And we can’t argue with results like those.

While we expected Cheerios Pumpkin Spice would be a popular entry, our team gave this a tepid reception, with 56% stating they either didn’t like it or thought it was “just okay.” Sorry, Cheerios. The AP team is a tough crowd to please. On the dairy side of things, we had three entries: coffee creamer, Greek yogurt and eggnog. According to FoodBusinessNews.net, dairy is a tough category to get right when it comes to flavors, due to the complex relationships between ingredients. Our results? Only 25% of respondents enjoyed the yogurt, 40% liked the eggnog and not one person enjoyed the creamer. Most took issue with the flavors, stating the items tasted “chalky” or left a bad aftertaste. The lesson: Not every product can be a winner, especially if that product is a pumpkin-spice flavored egg beverage.

Have a pumpkin spice product you think we should sample? Leave a comment below and we’ll try to include it in our taste test next year!

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