Pumpkin spice: Autumn treat or seasonal scourge?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What's happening

Monday is the first official day of fall. But the annual autumn flood of pumpkin-spice flavored products is already in full swing. Store shelves throughout the country feature just about every item imaginable — and several you'd never expect — seasoned with a familiar mix of pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice and cloves.

The pumpkin spice craze was born in 2003, when Starbucks debuted its Pumpkin Spice Latte. Since then, the coffee chain has built a marketing campaign around the yearly return of the beverage. That effort has paid off. Starbucks has reportedly sold 424 million PSLs worldwide.

Why there’s debate

Debate over pumpkin spice goes well beyond whether the flavor actually tastes good. The discussion often encompasses more substantial topics like capitalism, consumerism and sexism.

Those who celebrate pumpkin spice say the taste and smell evoke the cozy, nostalgic feelings of autumn and signal the end of summer. Others argue that it’s fun to get swept up in the communal energy around the arrival of pumpkin spice in stores. Much of the backlash, some say, is informed by a subtle misogyny that’s triggered by the products’ feminine connotation, specifically the Pumpkin Spice Latte's association with the stereotype of the "basic" woman.

Critics say enthusiasm for pumpkin spice is just as artificial as the ingredients in the products. The annual campaign, they say, is a calculated marketing push designed to manipulate consumers. Others are turned off by the intensity of the craze, as pumpkin spice products suddenly become omnipresent in stores, ads and social media streams.

What’s next

There’s evidence that the craze may have peaked a few years ago. Google searches for the phrase have dropped and companies may be seeing diminishing returns on their new pumpkin spice products, according to Vox. As for this year, there are still several weeks left in pumpkin spice season, which typically begins to wane in November, as Christmas items dominate the shelves.



Pumpkin spice products are delicious.

“In my opinion, the real reason people drink pumpkin syrup–filled lattes isn’t because they want to ascribe to some Starbucks-manufactured sorority girl ideal. It’s simply because these things are freaking delicious. They taste good, they feel good, end of story.” — Roberta Fiorito, Pure Wow

Pumpkin spice has become a beloved symbol of the fall season.

“...the haters need to back off. Pumpkin spice — which is merely a blend of pumpkin with sugar and spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves — deserves a spot in our fall landscape. It doesn’t deserve to be loathed so strongly — and neither does the demographic that loves it so much.” — Delilah Bourque, Pitt News

Pumpkin spice triggers a satisfying nostalgia.

“Who remembers helping their grandma bake cookies or their mom cutting them a big slice of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving? Sipping or nibbling on anything pumpkin spice has the power to immediately bring back those happy days of childhood and it’s that nostalgia that the pumpkin spice cult works on relentlessly to keep us hooked.” — Hilary Decent, Chicago Tribune

Criticism of Pumpkin Spice Lattes runs deeper than debate over taste.

“[C]ontempt for the PSL and other items of the seasonal pumpkin spice variety is often not really about the flavor itself. … Too frequently, it’s about sexism, class anxiety, and our collective skepticism of savvy marketing.” — Rebecca Jennings, Vox

Getting wrapped up in silly arguments is half the fun.

“...whether you are a fan of the drink or a fan of scorning it, the PSL’s arrival seems to bring everyone in on the fun.” — Eddie Scarry, Washington Examiner


Many pumpkin spice foods are unhealthy.

“Food manufacturers are using the twee nostalgia of autumn to sell processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt to consumers who might otherwise know better.” — Erika Nicole Kendall, NBC News

The hype is obnoxious.

“Now, don’t get me wrong. I like a good slice of pumpkin pie, but this mania over pumpkin-flavored goods is mystifying.” — Doreen Christensen, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The annual marketing push goes too far.

“My issue is less with pumpkin spice itself and more with the marketing — the pumpkin spice phenomenon that’s lit up in neon and is accompanied by blaring horns. It’s gone a little overboard, don’t you think?" — Mary Bileyu, Toledo Blade

Pumpkin spice’s popularity has made the fall season start way too early.

“Autumn creep is growing as insidious and prevalent as the Christmas tree ornaments that show up in October. Even amid sweltering August weather, pumpkin spice products (including deodorant this year) begin lining grocery store shelves. People don scarves before the temperature has dropped below 70 degrees.” — Gracy Olmstead, The Week

“Like holiday creep, pumpkin creep is real.” — Emily S. Rueb, New York Times

Fall nostalgia may be tied to the season shrinking each year due to climate change.

“Perhaps the obsession with the drink is linked to the fact that autumn, with its crunching leaves, bright colors and invigorating breezes, seems to be disappearing. Climate change has altered the way we experience it, and Starbucks is simply feeding our need for what is many people’s favorite season.” — Matthew Cantor, The Guardian

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images