We are right now in the full-blown stage of “pumpkin spice” season – mocked by some comedians but celebrated by millions of consumers. You either truly love it – or you hate it. Woe betides the couple where one insists on pumpkin spice goodies in the house while the other wants to enact a pumpkin spice ban.
However you feel about it, pumpkin spice – and its anchor, pumpkin – may have some health benefits. (Just remember: no added sugar).
It starts in September, immediately right after Labor Day, with some snuck in during late August: “Limited pumpkin spice-flavored (name product here).” Several supermarkets, such as the East Coast Stop & Shop (Ahold) have their own private label pumpkin-spice products. There are even several Facebook groups devoted to this flavor (one of which currently shows a pumpkin spice-flavored cigar).
According to one article discussing the psychological love of the scent-flavor, “Fragrant with notes of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg this fall classic is a sweet and cozy reminder of the season. Originating at Starbucks in 2003, you can now find variations of pumpkin spice latte at local and chain coffee shops across the country and injected into grocery items.”
But the reason this blend has a loyal fanbase is more than just its taste, it is the nostalgia that it evokes. According to dietitian Andrea Soung of Cedars Sinai, “The recurring pumpkin-spice-everything tradition we have in the U.S. may get a little old at times, but the theme running through shops and homes transitioning to the fall season and anticipating the holidays rekindles past experiences and builds community.
After all, even smell is connected to memories—and for most people, pumpkin spice brings warm and fond memories. Either way, there are some benefits to your body that pumpkin and its BFFs that comprise “spice” can offer you.
What Is Pumpkin Spice?
The core blend that is typical pumpkin spice is comprised of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice. It is hearty and redolent and is the scent most associated with autumn.
Cinnamon: A significant member of the pumpkin spice family, cinnamon is a powerful, versatile and antioxidant-rich aromatic herb. Research shows that its oil is abundant in cinnamaldehyde, which was found to have several cardiometabolic support activities in one study.
It’s no surprise that cinnamon is a “go to” herb to help manage blood sugar. In one study, researchers looked at the effects of supplementation with on antioxidant status of people with impaired fasting glucose who are overweight or obese. The participants consumed 250 mg cinnamon twice daily for 2 weeks showed a significant reduction in risk factors associated with diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. And in a meta-analysis of 10 randomized, control trials totaling 543 participants, cinnamon consumption was associated with a statistically significant decrease in levels of fasting blood sugar, low-density lipoprotein, triglycerides, and total cholesterol. This analysis also found that cinnamon could even increase high-density lipoproteins.
Nutmeg: A popular culinary spice, nutmeg is described as having a warm, distinct and slightly nutty flavor and is a star spice in Indian foods. Authors of a phytochemistry review on nutmeg describe, “In addition to its use in flavoring foods and beverages, nutmeg has been used in traditional remedies for stomach and kidney disorders. The antioxidant, antimicrobial and central nervous system effects of nutmeg have also been reported in literature. Nutmeg is a rich source of fixed and essential oil, triterpenes, and various types of phenolic compounds.”
Nutmeg’s essential oil has been studied for its role in discomfort associated with inflammation. In one murine study, researchers found that consumption of nutmeg oil alleviated joint swelling via inhibiting the expression of the pro-inflammatory compound cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2). Meanwhile, another team looked at the potential effects of nutmeg extract on another cause of inflammatory response – a high-fat diet resulting in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) in murine subjects. Here too, the researchers found that nutmeg extract intake could work through several pathways to result in inhibiting “the aggravation of obesity and inflammation by downregulating lipid-gene expression in the liver to ameliorate NAFLD.”
Ginger: This culinary spice is a tangy nuance to Asian and Indian cooking, and it is also the key ingredient in “ginger ale,” the soda we have grown up using when we have an unsettled stomach. Good reason, as ginger contains gingerols (among other phenolic compounds such as shogaol and paradol) that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. A comprehensive review of 43 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) investigated the potential efficacy of ginger as a remedy for nausea in pregnancy, as well as its potential applications for supporting digestive function, colorectal health, and inflammation. The authors observed, “there has been a trend of accumulative evidence in terms of ginger efficacy on human health.”
Cloves: This culinary spice is also popular in Indian cuisine and it’s often used to season pot roasts and to pump up a semi-sweet flavor in hot beverages. One teaspoon of cloves will deliver 55% of the daily value of manganese, an essential mineral necessary to support brain and nervous system function and bone health.
A surprising action of cloves is the ability to promote oral health by fighting growth of bacteria -- Porphyromonas gingivalis and Prevotella intermedia-- that contribute to gum disease. In one study, 40 individuals used a mouthrinse with clove combined with tea tree oil and basil or a placebo mouthwash for 21 days. The researchers found that the herbal mouthwash was clinically beneficial as a antiplaque and antigingivitis agents. Another in vitro study found that cloves can also kill pathogenic strains of Escherichia coli, known to wreak havoc in the gut.
Allspice: This is not a catch-all blend of spices but the odd moniker for a spice made from dried unripe berries (Pimenta dioica), native to tropical rainforests. Fun fact: its now common name was bestowed by the British who, when importing it, tried to name a similar flavor but the consensus was staunchly across the board – pepper, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg.
This versatile seasoning spice contains high amounts of eugenol has been studied for its potential antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. Additionally, several studies show it may ease symptoms associated with menopause, as allspice compounds bind to estrogen receptors.
When combined, according to one study, extracts of allspice, clove and ginger have been shown to active a specific receptor that has a significant impact in regulating metabolic pathways. This study emphasizes the good health that enjoying pumpkin spice products can provide.
So, to answer the question – why is it called pumpkin spice but doesn’t contain pumpkin? Well, according to spice expert Ethan Frisch, “Pumpkin spice has a confusing name, obviously, because there is no pumpkin in the spice. But it's a blend of different spices that historically were used with pumpkin and pumpkin pies or pumpkin puddings.”
Spice companies offer it all year round, but widely known brands offer new pumpkin spice foods and beverages seasonally. An article presenting 65 new pumpkin spice products include Pumpkin Spice Cheerios, Orios, Werthers’ soft caramels, Life cereal, several for pets (such as Greenies dental sticks), and so much more. Add these to many others making repeat showings, and pumpkin spice lovers are well suited to indulge this season.