What Exactly Is “Pumpkin Spice” and How Is “Cider Donut” Different?

What, exactly, is pumpkin spice? And will it ever be unseated as fall’s dominant flavor?

By Amy Traverso

Sep 28 2023


What, exactly, is pumpkin spice? And will it ever be unseated as fall’s dominant flavor?

Photo Credit : Brian Penny/Unsplash

Officially, fall begins with the autumnal equinox, when the sun’s center passes through the celestial equator from North to South. For most of us, though, fall begins when we see that first red maple leaf, walk out into the first chilly morning…or see the first pumpkin spice latte on a cafe menu.

Love it or hate it, there’s no escaping pumpkin spice muffins, smoothies, candles, and lotions at this time of year. Each year, the number of pumpkin spice -flavored or -scented products seems to grow to ridiculous proportions. There are even pumpkin spice trash bags and engagement rings for PS diehards.

But what, exactly, is pumpkin spice? And will it ever be unseated as fall’s dominant flavor?

Let’s take a deeper look.

What is “Pumpkin Spice?”

Typically, pumpkin spice refers to the blend of spices commonly used in pumpkin pie. That includes cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and allspice. In simple baked goods like muffins and doughnuts, these flavors usually come from the ground spices themselves. But for lattes, beers, syrups, protein drinks, and other processed foods, the flavors often come from extracts and essential oils developed by food chemists. Many baked goods also incorporate pumpkin or squash puree, flavor extracts, or dehydrated pumpkin.

As a flavor or scent, “pumpkin spice” can mean a lot of things and there are many ways to approximate it. But what holds true for all of its fans is that it evokes everything cozy and autumnal, from foliage to sweater season. And this connection isn’t limited to New England. In the ancient Ayurvedic medical tradition, spices like cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg are considered constitutionally “warming” and are recommended to balance the effects of colder weather. Considering their earthy color and mildly spicy flavor, this makes intuitive sense.

And if pumpkin spice feels a bit too familiar and overdone for your tastes, a newer fall obsession is taking shape.

Fresh cider donuts from Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury, Vermont.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Is “Cider Donut” the new “Pumpkin Spice?”

Enter the cider donut. For those of us looking for a new fall flavor sensation, this flavor combo of apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sometimes allspice has emerged over the past few years as a serious contender.

After all, cider donuts are just as deeply connected with some of our happiest fall memories, especially in New England. No pick-your-own apple orchard visit is complete without them. Like pumpkin spice, cider donuts evoke all the best sensory memories of the season. For products, we’re seeing the usual lattes, candles, soaps, baked goods. Planters has cider donut cashews. Oreo produces a limited edition run of cider donut cookies. Some hard cider producers make extra sweet “cider donut” flavored batches. But cider donut flavor has not reached the ubiquity of pumpkin spice and neither Starbucks nor Dunkin’ Donuts is offering a cider donut latte.

Still, we’re happy to see that fall flavor innovations are ongoing. What’s next? Apple Crisp?

Are you a fan of pumpkin spice? Let us know in the comments below!