On being … a matter of taste?

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ll start with a confession: other than having had pumpkin pie, I’ve never had a pumpkin spiced candy, coffee, or other store-bought goodie. Or have I? I guess that depends on whether you consider any foods that have cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and cloves “pumpkin spiced”.

I realize there are many reasons we associate pumpkins with the fall. In fact, in many ways, it makes perfect sense, since pumpkins are ready for harvest about now. And, given that they’re in season, it’s natural to find pumpkin-based food on menus this time of year, everything from soups to breads, to muffins and, of course, pies.

I also can imagine how the rich blend of spices we’ve come to know as “pumpkin spice” came about. I’m sure that when folks first thought about making a pie out of the erstwhile orange gourd they realized they’d have to do something to jazz it up (or cover it up, depending on your view). In addition to using a healthy dose of sugar, aromatic spices like ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg worked well with the otherwise fairly bland pulp. And once that caught magic blend on, spice sellers started pre-blending the spices so that folks could simply buy “pumpkin spice”, much the way we buy other blends, like chili and curry powder.

I get all that. What I don’t get is why so many food companies have suddenly decided we all want pumpkin spiced things. The first time I noticed something “pumpkin spiced” was Starbucks’ latte a few years ago. It wasn’t until later that I noticed it was a seasonal offering. Though I’ve never tried one, I can see how those spices would work with coffee.

So, when McDonald’s recently announced it too was offering a pumpkin spiced latte, I assumed they must figure Starbucks has done pretty well with them so why not serve up a little competition. And of course, Dunkin’ Donuts and my Canadian favourite – Tim Hortons – weren’t going to let the bandwagon pass without hopping on.

But when I was in the states on the weekend I couldn’t believe it when I saw pumpkin spiced M&Ms. Yes – M&Ms! (I should mention, they’re only available at Target in the U.S.) Apparently there are also pumpkin spiced Hershey Kisses, Planters pumpkin spiced almonds, and Kraft makes pumpkin spiced marshmallows – to name a few of the current offerings.

Until this explosion of pumpkin spiced foods, I thought – naively – that food trends were taste combinations that naturally caught on. The whole bacon-infused everything rage from a few years ago is an example of a “trend” I assumed spread naturally. I was introduced to that trend at a fine restaurant (one with a pedigreed chef), where a bacon-infused (chocolate) truffle was included on a cookie plate I ordered. (I didn’t care for it.) More recently “salted caramel” and “red velvet” seem to have become the IT flavours. (Sorry to say, I won’t be making room on my bar shelf for either salted caramel or red velvet flavoured vodka – they just don’t appeal.)

This whole pumpkin spice phenomenon brought back memories of an eye-opening discovery I had years ago when I was introduced to the ColorMarketing Group (CMG) for a magazine article I was writing. The CMG is a non-profit association that “forecasts” colours that are used for pretty much all products – from all housewares to wall paint, to clothing and cars. According to CMG’s website, the association’s “major focus is to identify the direction of color and design trends”. The reality is that they pretty much dictate the colours that virtually all manufacturers use.

When I first heard about CMG their forecasted colours included light, bright greens and purples. Well, sure enough, after that I couldn’t walk into a store without seeing CMG’s finger prints on everything. Personally, I found it disheartening. I’d noticed that tastes in colours seemed to go in cycles, but I never imagined that an association of international manufacturers actually drives these trends – but they do.

I can’t help but think that this whole pumpkin spice phenomenon is courtesy of some food trend “forecasting” association having its way with us. I realize no one’s forcing me to eat pumpkin spiced anything and there’s really no point in letting it bother me that pumpkin spiced products are everywhere. Besides, I’m sure pumpkin spiced goods will give way to eggnog flavoured things long before the first snowflake flies this winter.

So, maybe I should just phone a few friends and meet for a latte – perhaps a salted caramel, or red velvet, or maybe even a pumpkin spiced one. After all, if the food industry has its way, our resistance is futile.

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona


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