What is actually the difference between pumpkin pie spice and apple pie spice?

Pumpkin spice has taken the world by storm (mostly thanks to the PSL craze), but apple pie spice deserves some love

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published October 21, 2022 12:15PM (EDT)

The ingredients for a pumpkin spice mix, arranged separately and blended (Getty Images/Enrique Díaz/7cero)
The ingredients for a pumpkin spice mix, arranged separately and blended (Getty Images/Enrique Díaz/7cero)

For as long as I can recall, fall has been my favorite season. I cherish and savor every smell, every taste, every sight: crisp leaves that run the gamut of colorful colors, Halloween-y decorations, cornucopias and gourds, fall harvest welcomes, pumpkin carving, apple picking, spooky TV and movies (I've always been especially partial to the enduring nostalgic appeal of 90s Nickelodeon gem Are You Afraid of the Dark), songs and movie soundtracks, maple syrup, Thanksgiving, fall candles, sweater weather, "spooky szn," the brisk chill in the air, soups and stews galore, the slight shift in aroma that inevitably comes as summer morphs and shifts into autumn, the introduction of hearty, warming comfort foods, my birthday, and — as it should go without saying — all things pumpkin and pumpkin spice

The undisputed harbinger and face of the season, pumpkin spice began as a simple pie flavoring before blossoming into a stalwart autumnal icon, elevated far beyond merely a seasoning blend and into a societal and cultural emblem. While the espresso beverage is what initially launched the flavor to the stratosphere, it's now crept into everything from SPAM (yes, you read that right) and pasta to breakfast items and baked goods

There's also a real movement that is unnervingly anti-PSL, which has lots of unfortunate misogynistic undertones (or, in some cases, pretty overt overtones). That's a conversation for another day, though. 

The history of pumpkin spice

At Food & Wine, Nina Friend writes that McCormick has been marketing pumpkin pie spice since the 1930s, and Friend notes that the original "spice blend" may have originated as early as the late 1700s, noting that Amelia Simmons's cookbook contains two recipes for "pompkin pie" — one with nutmeg and ginger, and the other with allspice and ginger. 

Kevan Vetter — the executive chef at McCormick — tells Morgan Hines at USA Today  that the flavor seemingly didn't "take off" until 2010, when it became a real trend. I'd venture to disagree, though — at least anecdotally — because I became a massive pumpkin/pumpkin spice adherent when I was in high school in the mid-2000s. This also coincides with when Starbucks first released the original PSL (which contained no actual pumpkin until the recipe changed in 2015) back in '03.

I'd actually venture to say that Dunkin' pumpkin offerings are actually stronger, but I digress.

According to USA Today, Peter Dukes, the product manager on Starbucks' espresso team back in 2002, notes that the "team brainstormed drinks that might resonate with customers in the fall with hazelnut, apple, cinnamon, chocolate and caramel bases — pumpkin was a flavor on the list of more than 100 ideas." At that time, he argues, the only real pumpkin-adjacent food during the autumnal season was the ubiquitous pumpkin pie, but there were really no other options beyond that. They opted to move forward with the now-beloved (and often maligned) PSL and the rest is history. 

Side note: Starbucks has had other tremendous fall flavors — smoked butterscotch, various maple drinks, a chestnut latte, etcetera — but for some reason, most of these fell off almost immediately. 

All about apple pie spice — the underdog?

Conversely, apple pie spice seems downright quaint in comparison. Interestingly enough, though, the apple itself seems to have much more of an iconic, emblematic status than a pumpkin. On their own volition, pumpkins are known for Jack-o-Lanterns and pumpkin picking ... and not much else. 

From the notion of "as American as apple pie" or the shimmering apple perched on a teacher's desk, the apple has deep, thorough ties into our culture and society. There's also the infamous "bad apple" ideology, which Helen Rosner poetically writes about with incisive, stunning wit in The Atlantic

As Lizzy McAlpine's beautiful song "Apple Pie" notes, "apple pie baked just right — home is wherever you are tonight." There is also a hominess, a comfort and a familiarity associated with apple pie that is simply not often correlated with pumpkin pie.

While the practice of whipping up an apple pie is baked (pun intended) into our cultural consciousnesses, that seemingly hasn't extended to the spice itself. 

So what is the actual difference between the two blends? 

While cinnamon reigns as the supreme spice, there is a revolving door of spices that appear otherwise, from cloves and nutmeg to cardamom and ginger. Apple pie, generally, has a slightly less robust mix of spices, often leaning mainly on cinnamon and brown sugar to supply the foundational flavor profiles.

Pumpkin pie spice, on the other hand, encompasses more of a breadth of flavor, offering warmth and a bit of spice in addition to the reassuring familiarity of cinnamon. Of course, it's arguable that "pumpkin pie spice" is now more associated with coffee and espresso beverages than it is the pie itself, but apple pie and its related spice blend still seems more pie-based than drink-based.

Old Town Spices posits that apple pie spice is characterized by the presence of nutmeg, while pumpkin pie spice is characterize by the presence of cloves, in addition to cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and cardamom. 

Wide Open Eats concurs, stating that "the big difference between apple pie spice vs. pumpkin spice is that a pumpkin pie spice recipe includes cloves." Wide Open Eat's pumpkin spice recipe consists of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, cloves and optional cardamom, while apple pie spice contains cinnamon, nutmeg, allspic  and optional ginger and cardamom.

The Spruce Eats, however, claims that pumpkin pie spice "uses ginger rather than cardamom." The Kitchn also mentions mace, which is a spice that has fallen out of popularity, but most certainly retains a special place in pumpkin pie spice. Conversely, the McCormick iteration — which was originally developed in 1934 — consists of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and "sulfiting agents."  Clearly, there's no generally agreed upon ingredient or mixture here. 

Generally, making these spice blends at home is generally better than buying them pre-mixed. Not a fan of the sharp bite of ginger? Omit it, or use an infinitesimal amount. Do you stan cinnamon? Up the ante so your PPS is 75% cinnamon, with other warming notes and spices filing in the blanks. This way, you are able to master the mix yourself. 

The battle rages on

So while PPS has had a heck of a decade, perhaps APS will have the same status a decade from now? Currently, companies like Starbucks and Gregory's seem to be doing their due diligence to promote the apple pie flavor scheme, with drinks like Apple Crisp Macchiato, Salted Caramel Apple Latte, Apple Jack (cold brew with an apple cider cold foam) now being offered. We shall see and it'll be interested to see how the APS vs. PPS competition continues.

At the end of the day, though, I advocate the infamous advice incurred in the iconic Old El Paso commercial: Why can't we have both?

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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