Every year, summer likes to send a week of pseudo-fall weather that has everyone craving cooler temperatures, flannels, chunky sweaters, and, of course, pumpkin spice everything. As a barista myself (yes, I still pull espresso), I get bombarded with questions about when pumpkin spice lattes and frappes will be back on the menu as soon as those first cool breezes blow through in late August. When I can finally hand someone their first beloved PSL of the season, their reactions are priceless. From giddy little jumps to eyes rolling back into heads, I can’t help but smile at the power of the pumpkin and how blissfully happy a drink makes someone.
That’s had me wondering: Would people be as blissfully happy if they knew that pumpkin spice (real pumpkin and real spices, not the orange sauce) actually has many health benefits? Follow along and get ready to learn more reasons why pumpkin spice is truly the unofficial King of Fall.
A Spicy History Lesson
Although Starbucks is often thought to be the inventor of pumpkin spice when it launched the now cult-followed Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003, the beloved fall flavor goes back much farther than the early years of the Millenium and has its roots far from our local corner coffee shops.
The basic spice profile of pumpkin spice (sans pumpkin for now) includes a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and cloves, and depending on who you ask, allspice and ginger. But how did these exotic flavors come together to create something the world goes crazy for every fall?
Thank the Dutch East India Trading Company. (Remember them from Pirates of the Caribbean?)
Cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger, and allspice are all native to the islands of Indonesia in Southeast Asia. During their tyrannical attempt to rule the world, the Dutch East India Trading Company took control of Indonesia’s “Spice Islands” in the seventeenth century. Here, locals proffered their knowledge of mixing and blending spices into culinary masterpieces. The Dutch took it from there and formed the blend of spices known as Speculaaskruiden, a forefather to pumpkin spice. It included all of the spices plus coriander and white pepper. (Does the base word of speculaaskruiden look familiar? For all you fans of Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie Butter, it should.)
Fast forward to the 1790s and about 7000 miles away from Indonesia to colonial Scotland (aye, Sassenachs, the land of our Outlander book boyfriend, Jamie Frasier), where a cookbook author from Edinburgh known only as “Mrs. Frazier” releases “The Practice of Cookery.” Within the pages, she provides a recipe called “Mixed Spices,” which is similar to pumpkin spice with black pepper, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves.
A short time later, in colonial America, we find yet another cookbook author, Amelia Simmons, releasing a recipe within “American Cookery” for a pumpkin pie. Known then as “Pompkin Pudding,” Ms. Simmons whipped together mace, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, molasses, pumpkin, and other ingredients in a pastry shell to form what would become a Thanksgiving table staple for hundreds of years to come.
Jump forward a century to the 1930s when the McCormick spice company produced a mixture of spices known as “Pumpkin Pie Spice” as a way to quickly whip together a pumpkin pie without having to add each spice by itself.
So the journey of pumpkin spice started well before Starbucks put us all in a metaphorical chokehold and, dare I say, was beloved even by our ancestors.
Now For the Science
Whether you love it or hate it, pumpkin spice has a plethora of health benefits, separately and in combination.
This autumnal gourd is commonly considered a vegetable, but would you believe it’s a fruit? (Think back to seventh-grade science when you learned that if it contains seeds, it’s a fruit.) Additionally, pumpkin is chocked full of vitamins and minerals and has antioxidant properties to fight free radicals! Two of the highest concentrated vitamins in pumpkin, A and C, boost your immune system, which is a huge plus when the winter illnesses start creeping in.
Like pumpkin, cinnamon is full of antioxidants, contains anti-inflammatories, and can help protect the body from viruses like the common cold or influenza. It also is known to be a gut soother and improves the overall health of the digestive system. However, one of the most impressive facts about cinnamon is its neuroprotective properties, which can slow the progression of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
There’s a theme between the ingredients of pumpkin spice, as nutmeg also has a big antioxidant profile and is also an anti-inflammatory agent. There are also antibacterial properties in nutmeg that have shown it to be effective against bacteria like Escherichia coli and Streptococcus mutans.
Did you know that mace is the outer covering around nutmeg? This quasi-shell is known as aril and is packed full of vitamins, minerals, and omega fatty acids. It’s known to have antibacterial and antiviral properties and has been shown to be effective against fungal infections. Mace has also been used in traditional medicine as a potent pain reliever, digestive aid, and anti-inflammatory agent.
Like the other ingredients in pumpkin spice, cloves host antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have also shown that cloves can benefit the liver, act as a blood sugar regulator, and reduce the incidence of stomach ulcers.
If your grandmother told you that allspice was just a blend of a bunch of spices mixed together, she was wrong. Allspice is actually a single spice that has a multitude of flavors in its profile (most say it’s cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, and cloves together), thus giving it the appropriate name. Allspice, like the other spices in pumpkin spice, has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and even antifungal effects. It has also been used in traditional medicine as an analgesic and a reliever of gas and bloating.
Most of us already know how beneficial ginger is when it comes to digestive upset, as it’s a great fighter against nausea. Ginger is also an anti-inflammatory, is full of antioxidants, and packs a two-fold punch as an antibacterial and antifungal. It’s been shown to help reduce the severity of menstrual cramps and may be beneficial in preventing the worsening of cognitive issues like Alzheimer’s disease.
So next time someone wants to give you a hard time about sliding into the drive-thru to get yourself a PSL, pull up this blog and tell them you’re on a mission to improve your health. (You can be the judge on if your PSL has any actual health benefits.)
Treats for You
Since you’ve made it through the history and science lessons behind pumpkin spice, I’ve got a few treats for you, right from my personal barista recipe book!
I live in the country and my closest Starbucks is pretty far away so when my craving for pumpkin coffee hits, this recipe has pulled me through more times than I care to admit.
Kel’s Pumpkin Spice Recipe
- Into a clean jar, add the following ingredients:
- 3 Tbsp ground cinnamon
- ¾ tsp ground nutmeg
- ¾ tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp ground cloves
- ½ tsp allspice
- ½ tsp mace
- Put the lid tightly on the container and shake until all the spices are well mixed.
- Add the spice mix atop of your coffee grounds before brewing. (Start with a tsp and add more to suit your taste.)
- Store the spice mix in a cool, dry, place for up to a month.
And you can’t just have spicy coffee without the pumpkin, so here’s my recipe for pumpkin coffee creamer with a dairy free option too!
Kel’s Pumpkin Coffee Creamer
- In a medium saucepan, whisk together the following ingredients:
- ½ cup of light brown sugar (You can add more if you like it sweeter.)
- 1, 15 oz, can of pumpkin
- 1, 16 oz, container of heavy whipping cream
- Dairy Free: 1, 13 oz, can of coconut cream
- 2 cups of whole milk
- Dairy Free: 2 cups of coconut milk
- (You can add some of my pumpkin spice mix as well. It’s up to you on how spicy to go.)
- Continue whisking while heating the mixture together until warm.
- Transfer mixture to a high speed blender and blend for 1 minute.
- When cool, put mixture in a sealable container and store in the refrigerator for up to one week. Shake before each use to reblend as settling does occur.
(Disclaimer: The information contained in this post is for informational and educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for a diagnosis, treatment, or professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of a physician or qualified medical professional if you have questions regarding a diagnosis or treatment or consumption of one or combination of the ingredients. Do not consume if you or anyone who would consume the recipes above has an allergy to one or any of the ingredients.)