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Scientists think they know why we love pumpkin spice so much

Johns Hopkins University researchers have a theory for why Americans go nutty for nutmeg and cinnamon this time of year.
Pumpkin Spice Lattes are back earlier than ever. (Ryan Cody 12News)

ARIZONA, USA — The pumpkin spice season seems to be starting earlier every year. 

Retailers and grocers started rolling out pumpkin-flavored products back in August, long before Arizona began to feel the slightest whiff of autumn's cooler temperatures. 

So there's obviously a growing demand for cinnamony and nutmeggy spices during this time of year and some scientists have a theory that might explain why the pumpkin craze has become so commonplace. 

Johns Hopkins University researchers believe the human brain has been conditioned to trick itself into liking pumpkin spice more than it actually does.

“Once someone tells you it’s pumpkin spice, it will seem even more pumpkin spicy,” said Sarah Cormiea, a Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate. “Labels prompt us to reconceptualize an odor – to change how we think about and experience it.”

If someone is served a pumpkin spice latte in an unlabeled cup, Cormiea said they won't experience the tastes and smells as distinctly compared to when the consumer knows the drink is pumpkin flavored. 

The boost in sensory experience is related to how specific regions of the brain can become stimulated by merely reading "pumpkin spice" on a Starbucks menu. 

Cormiea said the brain's piriform cortex, which perceives smells, can become stimulated by simply reading smell-related words. This part of the brain is positioned near the area that stores memories, which could help elevate the reaction humans have when they encounter pumpkin spice. 

The positive memories of pumpkin patches, falling leaves, and warm sweaters can become attached to the tastes and smells of pumpkin spice, the researchers added.

That association between smell and memory can be powerful enough to entice customers to seek out anything with the pumpkin spice brand. 

“We often long for the arrival of fall at the end of a hot summer, and our sense of smell can summon up the season early,” said Jason Fischer, a Johns Hopkins professor of psychology and brain sciences.   

Despite pumpkin not actually being used to make most pumpkin-flavored dishes, Fischer said the brain has learned to attach different smells and tastes to those big, orange squashes.

“Pumpkin might not be on the ingredient list,” Fischer says, “but we can vividly experience it nonetheless. Our minds are very good at filling in missing details, guided by the associations that smells have in memory.”  

RELATED: Here's how to make a Pumpkin Spice Latte at home

RELATED: No, pumpkin spice doesn't actually contain pumpkin

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