Pumpkin Spice 101

Newswise — In this fact sheet and the associated video, food scientist, Kantha Shelke, PhD, CFS answers questions behind the science behind the popular fall drink, the pumpkin spice latte. Shelke shares how the drink and the spice mix is made, explains any safety concerns involving the ingredients, and the science behind why we love it so much.

How does commercialized pumpkin spice latte ingredients differ from ingredients found in your cabinet?

Commercial pumpkin spice latte ingredients focus on giving you a complete and pleasurable experience that is consistent every time and evocative of pumpkin pie and the holidays. Pumpkin spice mix contains at least 340 flavor compounds and these are not found in one’s kitchen cupboard. But the human brain can fill in the blanks, so commercial operators use about 5-10 percent of the natural blend of spices.

What are some common ingredients/chemicals that are found in pumpkin spice lattes?

The major and common ingredients/chemicals in pumpkin spice lattes include: cinnamic aldehydes for cinnamon, eugenol for clove or allspice, terpenes such as sabinene for nutmeg, and zingiberene for ginger. They may also contain vanillin and cyclotene for the burnt butter or maple notes to round off the flavor.

Are most ingredients found in different coffee brand’s pumpkin spice lattes similar?

The recipe for pumpkin spice lattes is not set in stone, and commercial recipes can change depending on the region of the country. But, they typically contain cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and clove or allspice.

Is it possible to make a pumpkin spice latte at home using spices or similar flavors?

Yes, but it will probably taste more like Indian masala tea – popularly known as chai in the Western world and less like the pumpkin spice latte you’re used to getting at a coffee shop.

How is a chemical or derivative in a latte approved to be safe for consumption?

Each compound used in the flavoring is tested and proven for safety at concentrations about 20-50 times what one would normally consume, even if they were addicted to this drink and drank it four or five times every day. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration review the information carefully before allowing each compound to attain GRAS status – which stands for Generally Recognized as Safe.

What is the benefit of using flavorings such as those in the pumpkin spice latte?

Skillfully designed flavorings, such as those in the pumpkin spice latte, offer just a few molecules of the right flavors instead of the whole cornucopia. So they are consistent and taste the same every time, are cost-effective-because only a few molecules are used instead of the tablespoon of the spice mix, and are ecologically sustainable because there is not enough spice in this world to go around should everyone decide to order a pumpkin spice latte today.

Why is pumpkin spice such a trendy flavor?

People in the Western culture associate pumpkin pie with the holidays, family gatherings, and nostalgia. This is why pumpkin spice latte is trendy.

Source: Kantha Shelke, PhD, CFS, IFT Spokesperson

About IFT 
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Institute of Food Technologists. Since its founding in 1939, IFT has been committed to advancing the science of food. Our non-profit scientific society—more than 18,000 members from more than 100 countries—brings together food scientists, technologists and related professionals from academia, government and industry. For more information, please visit ift.org.