The air is cooling down, the leaves are starting to change and the crisp smell of fall is filling the air — or is it pumpkin spice? For many Americans, that first pumpkin spice latte of the season is long-awaited. And each year, it seems, more and more pumpkin spice products become available for consumption. And with it, comes the infamous “pumpkin spice tax.”
What is the pumpkin spice tax?
Recent research from Magnify Money revealed that those pumpkin spice items you love so much are actually costing your wallet quite a bit extra.
The survey compared the prices of items with different flavors (including pumpkin spice) from six different national retailers. They found that the average “pumpkin spice tax” came out to 8.8% more compared to non-pumpkin spice items. However, in some cases, it could raise the price of seasonal items by up to 175%.
Of the six retailers the research focused on, Trader Joe’s averaged the largest pumpkin spice tax at 62%, while Target had the lowest at 14%.
When it comes to pumpkin spice lattes though, Starbucks holds the highest markup at 15.9%. This only makes sense, as they are the initial creators of the fall-themed beverage. However, interestingly enough, spots such as Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s charge the same for their pumpkin-flavored beverages as they do for their non-pumpkin counterparts.
Despite these obvious huge differences in price, people still seem to go wild for pumpkin spice every year. What is it that makes us love the fall-themed flavoring so much? And why are people willing to pay extra to get their fix?
Catherine Franssen, assistant professor of biopsychology and director of neuro studies at Longwood University in Virginia, said it’s likely due to our sense of smell in relation to feelings of nostalgia.
While the ingredients used to make pumpkin pie spice are technically available all year long, many Americans have come to associate the smells and flavors with Thanksgiving and the holidays. Since we often spend this time of year eating, laughing and spending time with loved ones, it makes sense that we would associate the pumpkin spice flavor with good feelings.
According to Franssen, smell is the only one of our five senses that directly triggers the emotional center of the brain. So a familiar smell can instantly transport us to a specific time or place in our memory — like baking pumpkin pie with a grandparent.
“You smell it — or even see those pumpkin pictures [and memories are immediately triggered by the cerebral cortex],” Franssen said. “[It] tells the reward part of your brain, this is going to be great.”
Franssen added that it doesn’t hurt that pumpkin spice is often associated with sweet treats.
“Our brain really prefers sugar as its nutrient source, because sugar molecules are really small, so they can cross membranes really easily,” she said. “And your neurons, [or] brain cells, can use sugar really easily and readily.”
This makes it pretty easy for your brain to get excited about the thought of a sweet pumpkin treat coming your way.
“There’s a sugar loading and your brain says ‘yay sugar, I’m so excited about sugar,'” Franssen said. “Not only is it a general activation [in the brain], but it’s going to light up the reward centers of your brain, like our dopaminergic pathways.”
That, along with good marketing, makes the pumpkin spice tax trap pretty easy to fall into. You usually start seeing pumpkin spice advertisements in early fall (around September) and are told it’s only going to be available for a limited time. As soon as it is, you are ready to get your fill before the pumpkin spice runs out!
So, if you want your seasonal pumpkin treats, go ahead and indulge a little! Just keep in mind, you might have to budget a little more for that side of nostalgia that comes with it.