You know what I am totally sick of? PUMPKIN-SPICE-FLAVORED EVERYTHING AND ANYTHING. Seriously, have we had enough yet? A few articles that have come out recently (like this one and this quiz) suggest that I am not the only one who is sick of pumpkin spice ridiculousness. Could the pumpkin spice trend be on it’s way out, please? But, while I am happy for this food, coffee, cocktail, water (YES, REALLY), gum, candy, yogurt, hummus, energy bars, and everything-under-the-freaking-sun fad to phase out, I had to wonder: What causes the death of a trend like this? And how does it arise so suddenly? For me, it happened like this: On a Monday, I threw up my hands at the office and declared, “Okay, I cannot do one more pumpkin spice post. Enough.” Then, I excused myself to tear up in the kitchen over coffee. (Thankfully, the office was not offering pumpkin spice flavored coffee that day, or I really would have lost it). My colleagues poked fun at me and told me to buck up, but that same week I saw a bunch of articles from my peers at other food outlets suggesting that they too were feeling completely exasperated by pumpkin spice madness. And it seems consumers are feeling the same way — the traffic and excitement around pumpkin spice posts has significantly diminished in comparison to past years. Do you see what I mean? This sudden and collective disinterest, how does it arise? I mean, this is a sociological phenomena unfolding right in front of our eyes, à laMalcolm Gladwell Tipping Point, people! What is this sense of “I’m over it!” that takes hold so abruptly and pervasively?
To get a real answer to this question, I called in the big guns: Two expert food forecasters who have some fascinating insight into the world of pumpkin spice. First up is professor Cindy Ott, who wrote the book (no, like, she actually wrote a book) on the history of all things pumpkin. Ott traces the rise (and fall) of pumpkin spice to the semiotics of pumpkins in American culture. “Pumpkins have been a symbol of the small family farm for many generations — good work ethic, agrarian core, connection to nature… So, commercializing the pumpkin is commercializing a sense of goodness and deep meanings —this can be seen as crass,” she explained. Ott made an excellent point that there is no real pumpkin in pumpkin spice, so it’s not about about the pumpkin, it’s about the values it represents. To prove just how embedded pumpkins are into our subconscious, she pointed to Time’s cover in November just after 9/11 – a simple photo of a pumpkin pie with an American flag, symbolizing comfort, family, reliability, and even survival.
Ott also added, “Look at eggnog! There is eggnog everything around the holiday season, yet it hasn’t experienced the same discourse and backlash as pumpkin spice.” Then I turned to Kara Nielsen, culinary director at the Sterling-Rice Group to get her take on pumpkin spice exasperation. Nielsen has been working in food for 10 years, and she notes market saturation as a major reason for the rumblings of a backlash. “A few years ago, there were not many companies doing pumpkin spice. Then because of Starbucks, the market gets oversaturated with cookies, beer, candy, and everything else. These new products cannibalize the original products. People can say to themselves, ‘I don’t only have to go to Starbucks to get this special flavor.’ So, it ceases being special.” She also points to a post by Food Babe as being a game changer for pumpkin spice. "Whether (Food Babe) is right or wrong, her post raised awareness to everyone that ‘this is fake’. Consumers really are getting more sensitized to fake ingredients in our food. There is a sense of, ‘I don’t really need to do this anymore,’” Nielsen explained. In a nutshell (but not a pumpkin spice one - UGH!), Nielsen views our burnout as a combination of the novelty having worn off, oversaturation, and a recognition (and rejection) of artificial flavors.
If anyone knows pumpkin spice oversaturation it's Khushbu Shah. She researched and wrote the Eater story (referred to previously) that tracks “49 Pumpkin Spice Foods That Have No Business Being Pumpkin Spiced.” Shah also agrees with Nielsen’s take, “It's now possible to buy an entirely pumpkin spiced-meal if you really want to, most of which is incredible fake tasting. So it's no longer thrilling or a seasonal excitement. Does the world really need pumpkin spice chicken sausage? The answer is no.” No, indeed. Like I said, I am not going to be upset if this marks the beginning of a pumpkin spice fade-out. And, like all trends and fads, this one might ebb and flow. Who knows? Maybe in a few years, I’ll be working on a story about nostalgic foods and pumpkin spice will be the first thing that pops into my head. Then again, maybe I won’t.