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Just What Is In Pumpkin Spice Flavor? (Hint: Not Pumpkin)

The flavor of the season, you may have noticed, is pumpkin spice. Food companies have gone overboard on the stuff. There are pumpkin spice ice cream sandwiches, pumpkin spice-flavored almonds and, of course, pumpkin spice lattes.

Comedian John Oliver couldn't take it anymore.

"I personally would prefer to drink a cable-knit sweater latte, or a Major League Baseball latte, or a 'keen awareness of my own mortality' latte," he fumed in a web video released in October by his show Last Week Tonight. "And the worst part is, nobody wants anything pumpkin-flavored from December through August, and here's how I know that: That bottle of pumpkin-flavored science goo sits behind the counter at Starbucks all year round, never aging, like Ryan Seacrest!"

This follows an attack on the drink from blogger Vani Hari, the self-styled "Food Babe," who complained about artificial colors, flavors and the fact that it contains "absolutely no real pumpkin."

We'd be surprised if anyone believed that Starbucks baristas were squirting actual bits of pumpkin into latte drinks. But what is in that "science goo?"

An undercover investigative trip to our local Starbucks revealed little. The list of ingredients on the quart jug of pumpkin spice syrup included sugar, condensed milk, annatto — which gives it that pumpkin-ish orange color — plus "natural and artificial flavors."

Fortunately, the ever-helpful Institute of Food Technologists came to our aid with a video about those flavors.

As food scientist Kantha Shelke explains, flavor companies have come up with a simplified recipe that includes just a few of the chemicals that occur naturally in pumpkin and cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg. A small selection of those flavor compounds is enough to make our brain think, "Ah, pumpkin pie!"

Instead of actual nutmeg, for instance, they use a compound called sabinene. Instead of cloves, they use eugenol.

According to Shelke, this simplified recipe actually does a better job of capturing the essence of pumpkin pie flavor than you'd probably achieve with the natural spices from your cupboard. What you'd get, in that case, would resemble India-style spiced tea, or chai.

That jug of "natural and artificial flavors" also is cheaper than the natural spices. Those flavor compounds are mainly manufactured using synthetic chemistry, rather than extracted from plants that grow in a field or plantation. They are copies of what's found in nature, but they're made in a factory.

But if your latte inspires fond memories of holidays and family gatherings (or idyllic farm life and moral virtue), don't let us ruin the feeling. Just forget that jug of "science goo." Remember, there's eugenol in real cloves, too.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.