Full disclosure: I have never had the quintessential autumn symbol, American national obsession, and Instagram-flooding entity that is the pumpkin spice latte. I know that it's the center of cultural arguments about its ubiquity — is it really the most obvious sign of a basic bitch? Enquiring foreign minds want to know — but in its latte form, I've never experienced the hit, the high, the pumpkin-y phenomenon. (I hate coffee; what do you want from me?) But from the perspective of science and medical history, the ingredients of pumpkin spice itself look pretty interesting — because they might influence your health.
Bakers and medieval historians will tell you that the combination of flavors in pumpkin spice — clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger — have been a known spice combination for a very long time. In England, for instance, the spices are used for mulling wine or apple juice in winter, as part of a pretty ancient tradition called wassailing. Oranges studded with cloves and cinnamon are known as pomanders, round balls of scent that were used to ward off infection in medieval Europe. Separately, all the pumpkin spices were all part of the spice trade that's been transporting precious scented cargo from tropical climates to cold areas for thousands of years. Together, they're taste magic.
But are they good for you as well as gobbling up a significant portion of your winter coffee budget? The evidence is interesting — but remember that unless you're inhaling the spices themselves, in large quantities, hot milky coffee with lots of sugar probably doesn't deserve to be put wholly in the "healthy" column...
If you talk to a grandparent about cloves and medicine, they'll likely tell you that they used them for toothache — which is still a common folk remedy today. Cloves are also known as eugenol, and oil of cloves, which is packed full of eugenol, remains a common part of modern dentistry practice as pain relief — though some studies have shown that eugenol can prompt a nasty allergic reaction.
Essentially, eugenol may work as an anaesthetic that numbs the mouth — and, interestingly, the National Library of Medicine notes that topically applying a cream containing eugenol and other herbs may actually be helpful for premature ejaculators, probably because it numbs the genitals. (No, this is not an excuse to dip a partner's bits in your latte.)
Some experimental findings back in 2006 also indicated that cloves, alongside cinnamon, may boost insulin activity and lower cholesterol levels if taken every day as pills. The discovery was meant to help diabetic and pre-diabetic patients control their insulin levels and lower glucose and triglyceride levels, but further studies have been inconclusive, so diabetics shouldn't start stockpiling their clove collection just yet.
Cinammon has a long and interesting history as a ceremonial, medicinal, and flavoring herb; the ancient world loved it, the Egyptians may have used it while embalming the dead, and the Emperor Nero possibly burned huge pyres of it at state funerals. But what about its medical benefits?
Cinammon has spiked interest in the medical community for various reasons. One is that it seems to be an anti-inflammatory; a 2013 study of soreness in Iranian athletes showed that a dose of ginger and cinnamon reduced their pain after exercise. The theory is that the spices caused lower inflammation levels in the muscles, reducing the body's pain levels — so a bit of cinnamon after a hard exercise session may prove to be a pick-me-up.
Another study in 2013 also found that a cinnamon diet for obese people boosted their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory responses — and a 2012 study discovered that cinnamon extract actually calmed down inflammation of the colon in mice, basically by fiddling with the body's immune response.
As of this year, Starbuck's pumpkin spice will contain real pumpkin instead of artificial flavoring — though not in huge floaty chunks, delicious though that may be. Which brings us to the health benefits of pumpkin, which are, unsurprisingly, myriad — gourd vegetables like marrows tend to be exceptionally good for the human digestive system and body.
Pumpkin is commonly reported as being rich in vitamin A, but its real health benefit is actually in the fact that it's packed with beta-carotene. As you may have guessed, it's in carrots as well: it's the protein that gives orange and yellow vegetables their autumnal lustre — and it packs some serious medicinal punch. Beta-carotene is used for a huge variety of health problems, from exercise-induced asthma to AIDS and infertility.
Four servings of beta-carotene a day, according to the University of Maryland, reduces risk of heart disease and cancer — though don't overdo it, or you'll nudge the indicators in the opposite direction. They also point out that beta-carotenes have been shown to help macular degeneration and diabetes, but that smokers shouldn't touch it because it may increase their risk of lung cancer.
Nutmeg, interestingly enough, has one of the most varied reputations of any spice in the world. While we regularly sprinkle it on our coffee, it's banned in Saudi Arabia and the United Nations has included it in its Bulletin on Narcotics, because it has a centuries-old reputation as a psychotropic and narcotic substance that can make you hallucinate wildly.
But the chemistry of the nutmeg brain affect is still up for debate: the ingredient myristicin, which accounts for a tiny amount of nutmeg, produced some mind-melding effects when delivered on its own, but having nutmeg as it is probably won't get you much of a buzz. In fact, if you overdose, it's more likely to annoy your central nervous system and cause drowsiness, nausea, anxiety, and dizziness.
The real medicinal focus for nutmeg isn't actually on the spice in its normal form at all: it's on whether or not an extract from nutmeg, macelignan, could be effective as a "natural" antibacterial agent. A 2006 study showed that macelignan could pretty much deactivate oral bacteria that cause cavities in the teeth, but for everybody's sake don't rub it on your gums.
Ginger has had an extremely long medicinal reputation in history. It's one of the only reputed aphrodisiacs that might actually work — it seems it increases blood circulation through the body, which leads to better blood flow to the genitals and more sensitive skin. But it's got more clout than just sexy qualifications.
The University of Maryland is pretty convinced of ginger's medicinal qualities. They report that it's prescribed for nausea and vomiting, and that it may actually improve the pain suffered by people with osteoarthritis — though in both cases actual medicines like ibuprofen took the edge off more thoroughly. Ginger is now actively promoted by arthritis organisations, because its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties seem to reduce pain.
An exciting area of research for ginger is also whether it might be a boon for diabetics. An Iranian study from 2014 showed that it may actually lower blood sugar, which would be a great help for people suffering from type-2 diabetes. How it works isn't precisely known, but ginger does have known effects on the blood (it reduces clotting power, for instance), so the results are likely to do with that. The results backed up a 2012 Australian study that found a similar thing, so diabetics will probably known ginger already.
An overall note, though: a pumpkin spice latte is probably not going to give you enough of a dose to give medicinal effects. But hey, when it smells so good — who cares?