It's all in your head: The reason you love seasonal flavours

Does the smell of nutmeg take you in your mind to a cold winter's day or coconut to a beach somewhere? You are not alone.

Most people associate certain flavours and scents with a different time of year - like coconut and summer or pumpkin spice and fall.

Some of that has to do with when things are in season, but there's more to it. So what’s the science behind smell and taste, and why do some of us have strong emotional associations with certain flavours, tastes, and the holidays?

Our noses and eyes are doing a lot of the heavy work here - and our sense of taste is just along for the ride.

"The sense of taste is actually a very simple sensory system, it is only responding to four or five primary sensations in the mouth, that is to say salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and potentially umami," Dr. Rachel Herz, a cognitive neuroscientist, author, and expert on the psychological science of smell, tells The Weather Network.

"Everything else we experience comes from our nose because when we eat, we are inhaling aroma molecules."

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The brain knits together the scent of what we're eating with its taste. It may feel like the sensation comes from the mouth, but most of it is coming from the nose. Our brain is behind the real powerhouse though, because that is where the information is interpreted.

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A tongue taste map. Created by Cheryl Santa Maria using graphical elements from Canva Pro.


Our sense of taste and smell has evolutionary advantages.

For most other animals, smell is the primary sensory system used to navigate the world, used to collect data on good and bad things.

In humans, smell works with emotions. That’s why a scent can instantly bring you back in time or whisk you away to another part of the world.

That's especially important from a marketing perspective.

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"One of the really important things when you're marketing, especially when you're marketing with fragrances, is that there's a congruence between what you're seeing what you're thinking and what you're smelling. Because one of the really interesting things about smell is it's invisible," Dr. Herz says.

"If we don't have context, then it can be confusing, and we don't like it. And from a marketing perspective, if things are incongruent, then it typically fails. So one of the things that's important when we have a seasonal flavour, or fragrance is that the product packaging matches the concept of the seasonal fragrance."

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Think of colours - orange and black for Halloween, red and green for Christmas. All of the elements of a seasonal product work together to make you feel a certain way.

Our brains look for markers and identifiers to interpret flavours and smells.

"That's going to be a marker and a label and an identifier for what it is that we're smelling. And that those things go together conceptually congruently, to make us kind of feel what we're supposed to feel when we're experiencing the flavour."

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Seasonal flavours have an air of exclusivity because they’re only available for a limited time. This builds a sense of urgency and hype, which can translate into bigger sales.

That - combined with the fact that nostalgia can be an effective marketing tool is why the PSL's popularity is unlikely to fade anytime soon.

Another reason we love seasonal offerings: People are hard-wired to look forward to things.

A 2015 study found having good things to get excited about reduces stress and boosts our mood.

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Tastes, smells, and emotions all work together. Something to think about the next time you have a sip of eggnog on a cold winter’s day.

Video production: April Walker/Cheryl Santa Maria. Narration: by Lia Nardone. With files from Lia Nardone.