Health & Wellness

Your brain on Pumpkin Spice Latte: 3 reasons why you're hooked

The Pumpkin Spice Latte, a drink Starbucks advertises as a “fall favorite,” is more like a fall obsession for many people.

It’s back on the menu this week, with the hype as big as ever. The beverage has its own hashtag, Instagram page and plenty of enthusiastic devotees expressing their longing for it on social media.

Starbucks calls the Pumpkin Spice Latte the company’s most popular seasonal beverage of all time. It seems to push a lot of buttons, but what exactly makes it so irresistible for some?

Related: 6 healthy pumpkin snacks you need to try before the end of fall

First, the stats: A 16-ounce Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte made with whole milk has 420 calories, 18 grams of fat and 50 grams of sugar — or around 10 teaspoons worth, said Madelyn Fernstrom, NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor.

“That’s a lot of calories for a ‘snack’ and your whole recommended added sugar intake for a whole day,” Fernstrom told TODAY.

Here’s a breakdown of why your body — and your mind — may find this particular drink appealing:

1. You’re biologically wired to like it.

Any combination of fat and sugar is a big draw for us. The sugar and fat interact on our taste buds to boost the flavors and make them “pop” more than either one alone, Fernstrom noted.

Meanwhile, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves are particular taste enhancers. “This is a real treat to the taste buds,” she said.

Then, there’s the salt. That 16-ounce Pumpkin Spice Latte contains one-tenth of the amount of salt you should be consuming in a whole day.

Salt, added to boost the overall taste, is nature’s most powerful food enhancer — to your taste buds, and ultimately to your brain, Fernstrom noted.

“People love tasty drinks. And taste is number one on why people choose foods,” she said. Then again, plenty of people find it all too much. "It's just so cloying," TODAY's Al Roker exclaimed.

2. Your brain associates it with happy times.

Think about all the fun rituals of autumn. You probably have happy thoughts about the season and all the good memories it produces: dressing up for Halloween, carving pumpkins, getting together for Thanksgiving, jumping into leaf piles and picking apples.

The spices you associate with fall — nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves — help bring all those happy thoughts and memories to mind, Fernstrom said. Sipping a Pumpkin Spice Latte is one way to enjoy them. It connotes happy moments.

RELATED: The most popular — and best — days to start a diet

3. You get a caffeine hit.

Caffeine has been called the “most commonly used mood-altering drug in the world.”

Coffee lovers know it can stimulate the central nervous system, which can make you more alert and give you a boost of energy. It can also cause you to crave more and seek out caffeinated drinks, like lattes.

How to enjoy without excess:

If you’re a fan of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, Fernstrom knows you’re probably going to go for it despite all the calories.

“It’s foolish to tell people to avoid these sugary, high-fat drinks. This is advice people always ignore,” she said.

RELATED: Make your own pumpkin spice latte at home

She suggests enjoying it in moderation. That might mean limiting yourself to one a week, or having a smaller serving.

Downsizing to an 8-ounce serving means cutting the calories, fat and sugar in half. At 210 calories, 9 grams of fat and 25 grams of sugar, “it’s no bargain — but a way to enjoy the ‘real thing,’" she noted. You’ll cut another 50 calories by using non-fat milk.

Follow A. Pawlowski on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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