Food for Thought: The chemistry of pumpkin spice flavor

By Nancy Schuster, Frontier Extension Agent

Food for ThoughtPumpkin spice is in everything today from specially flavored coffee to body butter. But don’t expect any real pumpkin!

For me, the words pumpkin spice bring up an image of a traditional pumpkin pie. The spices cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, clove or allspice are what gives pumpkin its flavor.

Natural spices are difficult to replicate for flavor consistency. The traditional pumpkin pie spice mixture contains about 340 flavor compounds such as eugenol for cloves, terpenes for nutmeg, zingiberene for ginger, and add in the Maillard reaction and the result is a tasty food product.

You may never have heard the words Maillard reaction; but you have done it while preparing foods – you just didn’t know it! A simple explanation is that the Maillard reaction is the chemical interplay between a reducing sugar and an amino acid (protein building block).

The Maillard reaction is also known as the “browning reaction”. This reaction does more; it also produces volatile compounds that contribute aroma – the reason the smell of baking bread is different than fish frying. Some of the compounds produced contribute to the resulting flavor as well.  The Maillard reaction gives foods a characteristic smell, taste, and color.

Sometimes holiday cooking and baking is all about ingredient substitutions. Remember that this is not the original flavor but one found to be acceptable. Here are some ingredient substitutions that make a teaspoon:

  • Pumpkin pie spice: 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ginger, 1/8 teaspoon allspice, and 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg; this makes 1 teaspoon.
  • Allspice: 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • Apple pie spice: 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon cardamom
  • Beau Monde seasoning: 1 teaspoon seasoning or seasoned salt, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon Mei Yen seasoning
  • Nuts in baked products: 1 cup rolled oats, browned (makes 1 cup)

K-State Research & Extension Frontier District offices all have access to a fantastic ingredient substitution bulletin that I keep in a drawer in my kitchen for quick help with substitution. It’s titled Ingredient Substitutions and was printed in June 2012.

schustersmNancy Schuster is a Frontier Extension District family and consumer science agent whose responsibilities include providing information about food safety, nutrition, food science and food preparation. She is based in the Garnett office of the Frontier Extension District and can be reached at 785-448-6826 or email [email protected].

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