Monday, October 15, 2012

Pumpkin flavoring -- is there any chemistry there?

The taste of fall (Credit: AftonApple.com)
Felix Salmon has an interesting post on the near-ubiquity of pumpkin flavoring in American corporate restaurants this season (emphases mine):
According to a seven-page PowerPoint from the MenuTrends database of the firm Datassential, “This year is on track to be one of the most active years for seasonal pumpkin menuing” and could top the 2011 record, when more than 60 pumpkin-related dishes appeared on the menus of America’s top 250 chain restaurants. (Datassential really gets into this stuff, further reporting, among other things, that in appetizers, pumpkin is more likely to be roasted than toasted or puréed.) Zero in on beverage menus, and the increase is even more striking: Pumpkin drink offerings have increased 400 percent during the past five years. 
The weird thing about pumpkin’s rise to baconlike ubiquity is that pumpkin, on its own, is not a very appetizing food at all. A dense and stringy fruit, it needs the accompaniment of a lot of sugar and spices before it becomes particularly palatable. As a marketing tool, however, pumpkin is perfectly pitched for today’s eaters. The fact that it needs that extra flavoring? That’s a bonus, not a bug, as far as the restaurant business is concerned. A pumpkin dish, in the era of the locavore, has connotations of virtue—when you think of pumpkin, you think of something farm-grown and wholesome. That helps make it a permissible indulgence, even when what you’re eating is mainly just sugar and spice. Never mind the recipe realities—savor those associations! [snip] 
...The secret of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte, for instance, is that it’s just a latte spruced up with pumpkin-flavored syrup—connoisseurs cite cinnamon, nutmeg, clove. Dunkin’ Donuts takes the feint further, dropping the “spice” from the name, though that’s mostly what you’re tasting. But no matter: If a restaurant served actual pumpkin purée, the taste and texture might shatter customers’ illusions. “Pumpkin,” on the other hand, is delicious.
It has long been my assumption that there was some sort of advance in flavor chemical manufacturing that allowed for this explosion in pumpkin flavoring. I was mentally picturing rough hard-hatted men in white coveralls, loading pallets of pumpkins into reactors, turning on the steam to the jacket, the oh-so-careful distillation of essence of pumpkin... Now all my dreams are shattered, now that I've learned that it's probably just the spice and the sugar that is so popular.

I know my readership in the flavorings industry is not large -- anyone care to comment whether there is a single molecule of pumpkin flesh in pumpkin flavoring?

9 comments:

  1. No, there is not a single molecule of pumpkin in pumpkin flavor - its the seasonings only..
    both pumpkin and the seasoning are both wonderful!

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  2. I think you forgot to mention ginger and star anise in the seasoning mix, both of which are quite prominent. In a way the pumpkin spice is quite similar to gingerbread and and chai (minus cardamon)

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  3. I've had bacon. Pumpkin is no bacon.

    I've noticed that breweries like to add a pumpkin ale of some description at this time of year as well. I've tried a few but they've all been pretty bad.

    Still, an odd trend and I think the locavore/wholesome theory is correct. Shame there is not more follow-through on it actually being local, with actual pumpkin.

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  4. A local brewery reports on its menu that its pumpkin ale was brewed with 250 lbs of local pumpkins. So maybe.

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  5. You need a dumpload of pumpkins to make any sort of pumpkin flavor stand out. Most of what you are tasting are the spices.

    A brewery in Pittsburgh, PA actually did away with the farce, and produces what they call a "Nunkin Ale", which is a pumpkin beer minus the pumpkin. You can hardly tell they left it out.

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  6. I used to grow pumpkins when I was a kid back on the farm. They gave me a small plot of land where I could grow anything I wanted (when I didn't have to tend to other crops). I used most of it on pumpkins because they were the biggest thing I could grow and thought it was cool. I really, really hated the taste though. When we had anything from the pumpkins I grew, I tried to get out of eating it. I always suspected those 'pumpkin cream-cheese pies' or 'pumpkin beer' I was buying later in life were not '100% kosher' as they say.

    250lb of pumpkins is not a lot actually. 10 max? If they are small. Those things can get huge. Maybe the local brewery also used doping.

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  7. Pumpkin pie is the essence of mediocrity. The very best pumpkin pie you ever tasted is practically indistinguishable from the very worst pumpkin pie you ever tasted.
    —Garrison Keillor

    Pumpkin pie is a good excuse to use nutmeg and cinnamon.
    —Garrison Keillor

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  8. Chemistry is all around us. Even Internet spammers like yourself are made possible by the wonders of chemistry.

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  9. If you aren't impressed by the flavor of plain pumpkin, you're eating the wrong pumpkins. Try some heirloom varieties; C. maxima and C. moschata types tend to have the richest aromatics, sweetest and creamiest flesh. The classic Halloween pumpkin was never bred for eating, and it tastes like it.

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