by Sara Scinto
Would you want a watery pumpkin pie? A savory pumpkin spice latte? How about a stringy pumpkin bread? Yeah, I wouldn’t either. I adore pumpkin spice everything as much as the next person (pumpkin is actually my favorite food), but are pumpkin and spices actually in these products?
There has been an explosion of pumpkin spice products rolling out for fall in recent years and each season it starts sooner (apparently as soon as July in 2017). Fall flavors are creeping into summer because the consumer demand is there and food companies want in on the profits that have soared in the last 5 years. Tiffany Hsu from The New York Times article purports pumpkin spice sales “…surged 20 percent from 2012 to 2013, then 12 percent the next year, then 10 percent in 2015 and in 2016”.
Unfortunately, not all pumpkin spice products have either pumpkin or spice blends in them. Sugar is first on the ingredient list of both Pumpkin Spice Oreos® and Kraft’s Jet-Puffed® Pumpkin Spice Marshmallows; neither contain actual pumpkin NOR spices, unless they are hidden in the natural or artificial flavorings. However they do contain artificial colors to mimic that beautiful pumpkin orange. According to Wikipedia, pumpkin pie spice is usually “a blend of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and sometimes allspice”, but commercial pumpkin spice products typically include chemical compounds to simulate the taste of pumpkin pie. You are not only getting fooled by the absence of real pumpkin and spices, but you are not able to reap any of the nutritional benefits of these foods. Pumpkin is a rich source of carotenoids, vitamin C, and fiber; nutmeg contains multiple B vitamins; cinnamon is full of antioxidants; and ginger provides the essential minerals magnesium and copper. If you’d like to create your own pumpkin pie spice, here are the proportions recommended by Julie R. Thomson at the Huffington Post:
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 5 teaspoons ginger
- 1 teaspoons nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon cloves
Seemingly healthier stores like Trader Joe’s are no exception to the pumpkin spice fallacy. Their Pumpkin Shaped Frosted Sugar Cookies and Chocolate Mousse Pumpkins don’t include an ounce of pumpkin (they are just pumpkin shaped). And although Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Joe-Joe’s and Gluten Free Pumpkin Bread & Muffin Baking Mix do contain pumpkin and “spices” on their respective ingredient lists, sugar comes first. This is something to be cognizant of if your body doesn’t handle sugar well.
Pumpkin may not be as straightforward as it seems either. As it turns out, the canned pumpkin that is so heavily used in pumpkin pies and other fall goodies often contains one or more types of winter squash! For example, the company Libby’s uses a Dickinson pumpkin, which is more closely related to a butternut squash than a pumpkin you would find in your typical patch. Dickinson pumpkins and butternut squash are both part of the Cucurbita moschata species, while a traditional jack-o’-lantern pumpkin belongs to the Cucurbita pepo species.
Before you start a false advertising class lawsuit, a couple things should be clarified. Jack-o’-lantern pumpkins actually taste pretty bad and would make a terrible pumpkin pie. They’re stringy, watery, and not that sweet. This is why canned pumpkin companies use a variety of winter squashes that are more vibrant in color, “sweeter, fleshier and creamier” than a classic carving pumpkin. It just tastes and looks better. And these companies aren’t technically breaking any rules, since the FDA has a quite lenient definition of pumpkin, which includes any “firm-shelled, golden-fleshed, sweet squash”.
The reason pumpkin spice mania has taken America by storm is that sugary pumpkin spice products taste good! Food companies know this and give consumers what they want, which may not always be the best for the health of our bodies or our food system. But do not fear: we can still enjoy all the delicious pumpkin spice goodness by being more aware of ingredients and making our own treats.
Here are some of my all-time favorite recipes that have real pumpkin and/or spice blends in them:
1-Bowl Pumpkin Bread (V, GF)
DIY Pumpkin Spice Syrup (can substitute stevia for sugar or reduce sugar)
Overnight, Slow Cooker, Pumpkin Pie Steel-Cut Oatmeal (GF, can be made V)
Pumpkin Curry (GF)
Pumpkin Dream Cake (for very special occasions)
Lastly, a pro tip for making your own pumpkin pancakes: substitute pumpkin puree for some liquid (whether oil or water) and shake some pumpkin pie spice into the batter. Play around with how much you substitute until it reaches a consistency that you like-there’s no wrong way to do it! The end product will be a dense and delicious pancake that pairs wonderfully with some maple syrup and/or berry topping.
Sara Scinto is a second-year NICBC student, avid coffee drinker, runner, triathlete, and yogi. She has a love for rainbows and all things food/nutrition related. During the fall, there is a 100% chance she has made some kind of pumpkin food within the last week. You can find her on Instagram @saras_colorfull_life.