The Sex Secret Behind America’s Pumpkin Spice Addiction

You can’t stop thinking about that latte.

You crave the beginning of fall, when Starbucks unleashes its Pumpkin Spice drinks. The rest of the year, you yearn for the sweet seasonal flavors wherever you can find them—licking Pumpkin Spice pudding off a spoon, biting into a plump pumpkin donut, smoothing your lips with hints of autumnal bliss.

Why does the pumpkin have such a hold on us? That’s what Dr. Alan Hirsch, director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation of Chicago, asked when he set out to study erectile response to fragrance. Out of 30 different scents, the biggest reaction—by far—was to the smell of pumpkin pie.

Pumpkin smell is powerful. The classic pumpkin pie spice combines cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice or clove. Cinnamon, ginger and allspice stimulate the brain, heart and blood. Clove has been called an aphrodisiac, and nutmeg is said to have such hallucinogenic properties that it’s used as a prison drug. Together they can really get it on.

When Starbucks launched the pumpkin spice latte 2003, sales exceeded expectations. “We couldn’t keep up initially,” revealed Peter Dukes, the product manager who led the development of the drink, “Nobody knew back then what it would grow to be.”

Its success continues today. There are many theories about the source of the success. Some suggest it’s Pavlovian. Some site a wholesome trigger of taste memories. Others believe the drink’s limited availability is what heats up purchasing. Analysts applaud Starbucks’ smart marketing campaigns.

Truth is, Sex Sells

In the late ‘90s, Dr. Hirsch set out “to investigate the impact of ambient olfactory stimuli upon sexual response in the human male” measuring penile blood flow on smelling different fragrances.

It turns out that men were aroused by every scent, though not equally. Only five percent of men got hard from the scent of cheese pizza, six percent pitched a tent for peppermint, while 40 percent saluted all-American pumpkin pie, particularly in combination with lavender and donuts.

It’s also rated highly for women, but not quite as impressively as a blend of Good & Plenty and cucumber.

“Unconsciously, it is probably is affecting both the marketers and the consumers,” Hirsch told me.

Has pumpkin spice peaked?

According to data from Nielsen, the market is still firm. Sales of pumpkin and pumpkin spice-flavored items accounted for $414 million in sales last year, up 45 percent from $286 million in 2013.

This year’s pumpkin spice temptations include pumpkin spice vodka, Coffee-mate, cream cheese, Twinkies, Oreos, Cheerios and marshmallows. Starbucks is complementing its infamous latte this season with Pumpkin Spice Madeleines. And for everything else, a pumpkin spice flavored spray.

Perhaps pumpkin spice is on the edge of climax. Eater put out this obscene collection of pumpkin spice porn they’re calling “65 Pumpkin Spice Foods That Have No Business Being Pumpkin Spiced.”

Even Kimmel is on it. After a successful week of nightly pleas to his audience to oppose the GOP’s repeal of the ACA, late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel joked, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to have you pick up your phones and call your senators again,” pronouncing New Jersey-based Villa Italian Kitchen’s pumpkin spice pizza “more disturbing than anything we’ve seen in congress this week.”

That pizza may have broken a food obscenity law, meanwhile Pumpkin Spice continues to be the source of sweet innocent pleasure.

And, yes. I’ll have what she’s having.