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    This Is Your Brain on Pumpkin Spice

    Like Pavlov’s dog, there is just something about leaves changing color, winds turning cooler, and the sun setting earlier, that prompt us to immediately salivate upon the mere mention of fall foods. We’re talking rich hearty soups, slow roasted root veggies, all kinds of squash, and of course pumpkin flavored everything. But what is it exactly, about all that is gingered, mapled, and spiced, that conjures up such foodie hysteria? Why is it that pumpkin spiced lattes and butternut squash soup make the impending doom of our inevitable deep-freeze so much easier to swallow? Well, we asked science, and it seems there are some pretty legit reasons.

    Jordan Gaines Lewis, a pop-science writer and PhD student in neuroscience at Penn State College of Medicine, says that our overt obsession with fall foods is really just our way of making the bitterness of the cold ahead just a little more palatable. “Fall can be a gloomy time of year for many of us,” she says. “We use foods like pumpkin, hearty stews, and roasted veggies to give meaning to fall, much like we’ll associate boots, scarves, Halloween, apple-picking, and pumpkin-carving to this time of year. Attaching this special significance to autumn makes it much more enjoyable as the gloomy winter months approach.”

    In other words, in anticipation of the incoming winter season we seek comfort and warmth in fall foods and flavors. “Fall foods are associated with warmth, both in the flavors used — nutmeg, cinnamon– and the temperature — breads, stews–,” says Gaines Lewis. “It’s not entirely clear why, but we perceive these ‘warm’ foods to be more comforting. It might be because they physically warm us up, because we associate them with family/ friends/ holidays, because they tend to contain more fat/sugar, or, more likely, it’s a combination of the three.”

    Gains Lewis also makes note of the marketing aspect of the fall food craze, how once ‘pumpkin spice’ is added to just about anything, it becomes an immediately sought after item. “Marketers and psychologists have known for years that we’re much more motivated to obtain something if we know it’ll soon be unavailable, like a limited-edition product,” she says. “We anticipate these special autumn flavors every year because they’re only available for a few months.”

    But what really seems to be the most profound theory behind our insanity for autumn fare is its connection to our past. “Injecting meaning into something ignites a sense of nostalgia,” says Gaines Lewis, and fellow expert Dr. Camille Begin, also agrees. Dr. Begin, author and postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University, says, “Nostalgia is key to our cravings for comfort food and for fall comfort food in particular.”

    Comfort foods are often linked to our nostalgia for childhood, explains Dr. Begin, “the early sensations that shaped our tastes and, really, who we are.” Seasonal comfort foods are also culturally specific, “and deeply linked to place and socio-economics,” she says. “Tell me what your comfort food is and I will tell you where and when you grew up.”

    Looking even further back, to where and when these connections with certain seasonal foods first originated, Begin directs us to the time when our ancestors lived off the land. “Fall was a time of harvest and festivals, when you would reap in the result of your work over the spring and summer […] a time when you had to can all the extra fruits and vegetables for consumption throughout the winter; lay down root vegetables in the cellar and make sure they would not rot or go bad; kill a hog or two and gather your neighbors to make sure you could transform all the meat into sausages before it went bad.” Et voila – fall foods!

    So while the Starbucks PSL may be deemed the top autumn accessory for every basic bitch, it appears our love of fall foods and flavors is actually far from basic. It’s about survival! So go ahead and grab your warm cinnamony beverage and your delightfully carby dinner, and get ready to bear down for the colder days ahead. They are coming whether we like it or not. Might as well try to enjoy it.

    Topics: camille begin, fall foods, gourds, jordan gaines lewis, psychology, pumpkin, pumpkin spice, science