Food Matters: Mind Tricks and Mouth Treats |

Food Matters: Mind Tricks and Mouth Treats

Jack O' Lantern on leaves in the woods
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Most-popular Halloween candy by state, according to a poll of 42,238 users of marketing research website Influenster:

• Alabama: Airheads

• Alaska: Snickers

• Arizona: Toblerone

• Arkansas: Skittles

• California: Lifesavers

• Colorado: Milky Way

• Connecticut: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

• Delaware: 3 Musketeers

• Florida: Nestlé Crunch Bar

• Georgia: Pixy Stix

• Hawaii: 100 Grand Bar

• Idaho: Butterfinger

• Illinois: Snickers

• Indiana: Reese’s Pieces

• Iowa: Twix

• Kansas: Twizzlers

• Kentucky: Whoppers

• Louisiana: Swedish Fish

• Maine: Starburst

• Maryland: Almond Joy

• Massachusetts: Starburst

• Michigan: M&M’s

• Minnesota: 100 Grand Bar

• Mississippi: Hershey’s Kisses

• Missouri: Hershey’s Kisses

• Montana: Kit Kat

• Nebraska: Skittles

• Nevada: Jolly Ranchers

• New Hampshire: Tootsie Rolls

• New Jersey: Sour Patch Kids

• New Mexico: 3 Musketeers

• New York: SweeTarts

• North Carolina: Butterfinger

• North Dakota: Sour Patch Kids

• Ohio: Milky Way

• Oklahoma: M&M’s

• Oregon: Candy corn

• Pennsylvania: Swedish Fish

• Rhode Island: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

• South Carolina: Candy corn

• South Dakota: Laffy Taffy

• Tennessee: Candy corn

• Texas: Candy corn

• Utah: Nerds

• Vermont: Almond Joy

• Virginia: Reese’s Pieces

• Washington: Airheads

• West Virginia: Oreos

• Wisconsin: Laffy Taffy

• Wyoming: Candy corn

• District of Columbia: Twix

IF ASKED TO DEFINE October in a single smell, I’d choose the sweet, musty scent of pumpkin guts. As is customary in many American households, carving up jack-o’-lanterns was an annual event in my family, typically a week or two before Halloween. Armed with giant metal spoons, my brother and I would scoop out the insides of our respective ‘punkins,’ scraping every stubborn string and seed from the interior until the walls were slick, maybe tossing the slimy strands at one another from opposite ends of the kitchen island. After sawing scary mugs into the smoothest walls, we’d set our lanterns before the picture window in our living room. Every night before dinner we’d light candles inside, each time inhaling the intoxicating stench of spent matches, melting wax, and slightly sour, slowly fermenting pumpkin flesh.

I was reminded of all this last week at a pumpkin-carving party. Without fail, every time I crack open a gourd — even spaghetti squash, no matter the time of year — I can’t help but think of that childhood ritual. The smell reminds me of being a kid in New England in autumn, when Dad raked giant piles of dead, crackly maple leaves and darkness fell during the bus ride home from soccer practice, all signaling the impending arrival of Old Man Winter. (Once of twice he showed up early, forcing us to tromp through a foot of snow while trick-or-treating.)

The dessert I brought to the party provoked a similar Pavlovian response, though one rooted in memory relatively recently. Slutty Brownies, which I make every October for friends who ask about them frequently, taste as sinful as they sound: A three-layer confection comprised of chocolate-chip cookie dough topped with Double Stuff Oreos then covered with brownie batter and baked into a bar so saccharine that it zaps any interest in a fistful of fun-size candy. Just as pumpkin guts take top honors for all-time October scent memories, the chocolately, gooey chew of Slutty Brownies defines Halloween in Aspen via flavor, after only a few years.

While smell and memory are inextricably linked, taste memory is thought to be the strongest sort — more powerful than sight, sound, or scent alone. Yet since odor is known to influence our perception of taste, nostalgia for certain foods — Mom’s mac and cheese or Christmas sugar cookies — is largely about aroma. Plug your nose while biting into a Slutty Brownie, and it might be hard to identify chocolate as the defining flavor despite its fudgy texture.

Researchers contend that this phenomenon is tough to study, as individual experience is unique and often difficult to put into words. Our olfactory sense is the most primitive of them all; the physiological connection between odor receptors in the nose (some 12 million per person) and brain regions responsible for emotion and memory is clear. Still, everyone agrees that certain smells (and flavors) are able to trigger memories more strongly than cues from other senses, such as sight or sound.

Perhaps taste memory and nostalgia both play roles in the popularity of candy corn, which has been around since the 1880s. A recent poll of more than 40,000 Americans by marketing research website Influenster determined that candy corn is king in five states. (See sidebar, opposite.) Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, however, were voted most overall, which is consistent with National Confectioners Association findings that chocolate is Halloween’s defining flavor.

Do those folks really enjoy candy corn above Snickers and Twix, or might their choice have more to do with seasonal nostalgia for the tri-colored triangles shaped like vampire teeth? I wonder.

Interestingly, every single candy mentioned in the poll is one that’s been around for decades. Polarizing choices from long ago (Good & Plenty, anyone? No, really: anyone?!) are notably absent.

While research confirms that tastebuds “mature” as we grow older — flavors we may have avoided in childhood become bearable or even enjoyable — nostalgia certainly influences crowds. This is clear in Jelly Belly’s annual survey of jellybean flavors: Kids despise cappuccino, coconut, and black licorice, yet those last two are among adult favorites. Most telling is that everyone agrees on #1: Very Cherry has placed among Jelly Belly’s top two flavors since its debut in 1976.

Infusing foods with flavors that hark to childhood is a recognized way for food scientists to formulate new products they hope will grab consumer attention in an oversaturated market. Every few years, “nostalgia” is listed as an industry trend at the annual Sweets & Snacks Expo in Chicago, which draws hundreds of companies to show off new treats that they hope inspire emotional connections in shoppers. (Indeed, “classic childhood flavors are making a comeback,” reported the National Confectioners Association after the 2015 expo.)

Thirteen years ago, Starbucks launched its pumpkin-spice latte and sparked a national obsession that has only grown more ridiculous each fall (pumpkin spice now flavors everything from booze and cereal to tortilla chips and hummus). By now the beverage has been around long enough that thousands of Americans consider the smell of a pumpkin-spice latte as nostalgic on its own. Yes, the aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves have been universally appealing for centuries. Pumpkin itself? Not so much. I think of messy Halloween jack-o’-lantern carving — and that stinks.

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