Chatter about “pumpkin spice” and its ever-mounting popularity is prompting big thinkers to wonder aloud if the autumnal trend has gone too far. With good reason.
The nose-tickling blend of earthy spices, including cinnamon and nutmeg, has gone well beyond lattes and doughnuts, recently spawning myriad “limited time” products, including pumpkin spiced butter, cream cheese, yogurt, Oreos, marshmallows, granola bars, English muffins, even dog treats.
But only in the United States. As usual, most of these products haven’t crossed the border.
“Wow! Not there,” a Kraft Canada customer service agent confirms over the phone, as she checks the availability of the seasonal products in Canadian stores. “No marshmallows, no cream cheese, no pudding…”
In a test with Canadians, the Philadelphia brand pumpkin-spiced cream cheese “did not come back as a top launch contender,” says Kraft Canada spokesperson Kathy Murphy.
Likewise, the pumpkin spiced Greek yogurt made by Chobani isn’t stocked here either, says spokesperson Michael Gonda via email, adding: “We love Canada and think it’s a vibrant market. And while all options are on the table, right now we’re focused on local manufacturing, continuing to grow our business in the U.S.”
By local, he doesn’t mean Toronto. Chobani vanished from Canadian grocery stores last year after reportedly failing to secure a long-term milk supply.
Cedar’s, the brand behind much-hyped pumpkin spiced hummus, is sold at two locations in Toronto. Alas, the special pumpkin spice flavour isn’t among the offerings, says spokesperson John Collins, of Natural Markets Food Group.
Thomas’s English Muffins, which is distributed locally by Weston Foods, makes a pumpkin spice version of its famous nook and cranny muffins. Sadly, not for Torontonians.
None of this comes as a shock to Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph.
Pumpkin spice, while alluring, doesn’t appeal to everyone, he says, and the slice of Canadians willing to buy it in, say, potato chips or tub butter, is probably just too small. The U.S. has 316 million potential pumpkin-spice eaters, he says, compared to Canada’s 35 million.
“It’s a taste that pleases certain individuals,” he says. “Not a product that caters to a significant market.”
And seasonality has a lot to do with its popularity, Charlebois says. In the U.S., Thanksgiving is still a few weeks away, and the holiday there draws a larger celebration than Canada’s October counterpart.
But on both sides of the border, the weather and pumpkin yield — both good this year — have likely contributed to the desire for pumpkin spice items.
“This fall has been amazing,” Charlebois says. “So people are into pumpkins. They want to have that taste of spice.”
And so we went on a spice hunt.
In Toronto, there appears to be some animosity toward the flavour profile. An employee at Nespresso Boutique Bar in Yorkville flared his nostrils when asked about the existence of a pumpkin spice espresso pod. “Absolutely not,” he said, striding away.
But that’s an anomaly. All the major coffee chains — Starbucks, which arguably started the trend, Second Cup, Timothy’s and Tim Hortons — sell a pumpkin spice latte, of course.
At around $3 for a medium, the Tim’s version is the cheapest (the others can reach into the $5 range) and comes topped with whipped cream and crumbly pumpkin-spiced cookie. Like the rest of them, it smells vaguely of nutmeg, perhaps cinnamon.
After a few sips, the cookie, cream, coffee and “natural” spices just beat on the palate like a toddler playing drums. Sweet at first, then cloying.
Same deal with the baked goods at Tim’s and Starbucks. Since Timmy’s Pumpkin Pie Doughnut and Pumpkin Bagel were sold out in the early morning on a recent weekday, the Pumpkin Spice Muffin (carrot muffin with allspice?) and Timbits (tastes like sugar) had to suffice.
It would have been nice to sample McDonald’s Pumpkin Spice Latte but, according to spokesperson David Ford, GTA stores have all but sold out.
“PSL is a very popular flavour for us,” he writes in an email. But, he continues: “we’re pleased to be launching two new exciting flavours . . . for the holiday season: Crème Brulee Latte and Peppermint Mocha.”
You heard it here first, folks. But back to PS.
A scouring of several grocery and specialty food stores in Toronto yields few packaged PS items. Among them, a Spiced Pumpkin Pie Clif Bar and Pillsbury’s limited edition bake-at-home PS cookie dough.
The Clif bar reads of cloves and cinnamon. But its spice is outpaced by the stale smell, characteristic of the product in general.
The cookie, by contrast, smells the part. Flattened into discs, the uncooked dough is squash-coloured: deep, golden-yellow and flecked with white bits of “cream cheese flavoured chips.”
The raw morsels are moist and pliable, perfect for nibbling. But sweetness — sugar is the dominant flavour — quickly overwhelms.
The ingredient list in the dough also includes “pumpkin flakes.” While you’d think the large, orange vegetable would most surely factor into pumpkin spiced products, it is more of a rarity.
Pumpkin spice usually refers to a kicky blend of ground nutmeg, cloves, allspice, ginger and cinnamon, which is often added to tasteless pumpkin mash for that signature PS flavour.
In England, this specific blend of spices is known as “mixed spice,” according to Allison Johnston, owner of The Spice Trader on Queen St. W.
“It’s more popular in the fall,” Johnston says. “But it’s all year round too, because people realize it’s for all their baking needs.”
A read of the labels on pumpkin-spiced whisky and a variety of pumpkin ales available at the LCBO was a pleasant surprise. Actual pumpkin is an ingredient in the Great Lakes Brewery Pumpkin Ale, St. Ambroise’s The Great Pumpkin Ale and Steamworks’ Pumpkin Ale, though — in a taste test — the flavour of the squash wasn’t always detectable.
Unlike many other pumpkin spice products, the specialty alcohols are top sellers, says LCBO spokesperson Heather MacGregor. This year, liquor stores sold 12 different types of pumpkin and pumpkin-spiced beers and ales — double what was available in 2011.
Brewers have been experimenting with different flavours, MacGregor says, and “customers like it.”
But our taste test panel wasn’t won over by Spicebox pumpkin spiced Canadian whisky, a caramel-coloured elixir of potent butterscotch fragrance. “The ’90s called,” said the Star’s Linda Barnard, a former cocktail columnist. “They want their Schnapps back.”