Why We’re Obsessed With Pumpkin Spice Lattes, According To Science

The leaves are changing and temperatures are cooling down, which can only mean one thing – it’s fall, a.k.a. pumpkin spice latte season.

By Meghan Dillon2 min read
shutterstock Why We’re Obsessed With Pumpkin Spice Lattes, According To Science

I love pumpkin spice lattes (PSLs) as much as the next gal, which means I love them a little too much! However, there’s a scientific reason behind the classic fall drink’s popularity, and it has everything to do with fall and nostalgia.

Comfort in a Cup

Fall is the favorite season of the basic b*tch for a reason. We tend to associate fall with comfort because it’s the season of so many things we love – cooler weather, falling leaves, hot apple cider, cozy nights by the fire, and everything pumpkin. And how can we forget Halloween?

Many of us associate Halloween with happy childhood memories of trick-or-treating and hayrides, and this sense of nostalgia creates a strong sense of comfort. Amy Jane Griffiths, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and professor at Chapman University, believes this is one of the reasons why we love fall so much. She writes, "We all crave the comfort and security that comes with traditions and predictability. They may relate to joyful experiences with friends and family and provide something to look forward to.”

trey kennedy white girl coffee

If you think about it, nothing represents fall quite like pumpkins. They’re associated with both Halloween and Thanksgiving, therefore the taste of a PSL and the scent of pumpkin, in general, make us think of fall. Scent and taste are tied together, and they can stir up intense emotions.

Dr. John McGann, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Rutgers University, believes this is behind our love of PSLs. He writes, “Most of what we refer to colloquially as taste is actually smell. About 70% of our [perception] of taste is retronasal smell and then maybe 25% of it is true taste: salty, bitter, sweet. But there are additional components: the feeling of creaminess, which really contributes to a perception of flavor [and entails] your sense of touch. Then there’s an additional sense of pungency, [as in] the burning feeling of pepper from hot wings. That’s your trigeminal system. So, your brain is putting all of these things together.”

McGann goes on to explain that smell has an anatomically more direct connection (than taste) to the regions of our brain that handle emotion and memory.

PSL is life

Think about it. Is there anything better than walking into Starbucks for the first time in the fall? The warm scent of spices fills your nostrils, and that first sip of your PSL tastes like heaven on your taste buds and stirs up all the warm fuzzies. It makes you want to curl up in a warm blanket and watch a feel-good movie. A PSL basically tastes like a slice of pumpkin pie, so it’s no wonder why we associate the taste and scent with happy memories.

Caffeine Isn’t the Only Addictive Substance in a PSL

It’s probably best that PSLs are only available for a few months, because they have a lot of sugar! For example, a Starbucks’ grande PSL with 2% milk has 390 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 50 grams of sugar. Though it’s delicious, a PSL isn’t the healthiest drink out there. 

Unfortunately for us, one PSL has twice the amount of sugar we should have in a day, as Dr. Taz Bhatia, a board-certified integrative medicine physician and the author of Super Woman RX, writes, “Unfortunately, the beverage contains a dangerous amount of sugar — up to 50 grams. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 37 grams of sugar a day for men and 25 for women. This one drink is double the amount of sugar women should intake in one day.” Too much processed sugar can lead to period problems, hormonal imbalances, and mood issues in women.

psl-pumpkin-spice-latte giant cup

Those delicious sugary drinks can also be addictive. This speaks to another reason why we love PSLs so much, but it also goes to show that we shouldn’t be drinking one every day for three months. It’s okay to indulge in one every once in a while (even if that’s once a week) during the fall, but it’s also a smart idea to drink your regular coffee or ask for fewer pumps of pumpkin syrup. 

Closing Thoughts

PSLs are delicious, but they’re not worth risking your well-being by developing an addiction to them. Also, why ruin the drink for yourself? I think it’s fun because it's  limited edition, and I can only have a few cups a year, so why not treat it like a celebratory treat instead of an everyday drink?

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