It's a good time to be a pumpkin eater.
As a lifelong devotee of pumpkin, I have been keenly aware of the plethora of pumpkin options in recent years. It's no longer just about pie.
It seems as if every craft brewery has its version of pumpkin beer. Most coffee shops seem to have a pumpkin latte on the menu at this time of year. And pumpkin-flavored cupcakes, breads and other forms of sweet pumpkin goodness abound.
The folks at Nielsen have taken notice, too, and have quantified just how much more pumpkin Americans are consuming these days. They found that sales of pumpkin- flavored products in the United States grew 19 percent last year, accounting for more than $290 million in revenue.
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And it's not showing any signs of slowing. Sales of all things pumpkin-flavored are up 28 percent through early September — well before the big pumpkin season even got going, said Todd Hale, Nielsen's senior vice president of consumer insights.
For better or worse, one school of thought is that pumpkin's recent rise could be traced to Starbucks' wildly popular and highly anticipated pumpkin spice latte.
Since Starbucks began offering it 10 years ago, more than 200 million have been sold. It's become the company's most popular seasonal beverage ever.
Manufacturers and retailers probably took notice of its success and jumped on the bandwagon. After all, once manufacturers find success with a flavor in one category, they know it probably can work in other foods and beverages, too, Hale said.
According to Nielsen, pie filing remains the most popular use of pumpkin, followed by coffee, cream, baking mixes and beer. Some more unconventional uses — in frozen waffles, milk and ice cream — also made the top 10.
Signs suggest pumpkin is becoming a year-round product. But for the most part, it's still closely tied to fall.
Great Pumpkin — a mouth-pleasing blend of fresh pumpkin pie, vanilla custard and whipped cream — is one of the most popular seasonal products at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard in St. Louis, general manager Travis Dillon said.
Ted Drewes used to roll it out in October but, due to demand, has been selling it earlier and earlier since it was introduced about 15 years ago. Now it comes out around Labor Day.
"We keep it seasonal, but my goodness, before we even start selling it, people are asking about it," Dillon said.
Schlafly raised some eyebrows this year when it released its most anticipated beer of the year — pumpkin beer — in early August. Is that as bad as the retailers who started airing Christmas shopping commercials last month?
The Schlafly crew hopes not. They say they have to start brewing it in early summer because of the huge demand.
"We're not trying to be the first to the market and we don't have any market research telling us that we should release Pumpkin Ale in August," spokesman Troika Brodsky wrote in a blog post. "Our release schedule is what it is because it is literally the only way we can make this work if we're going to increase how much Pumpkin Ale we can get to our fans."
The brewery plans to increase production of pumpkin beer by 75 percent this year.
So what explains this appetite for all things pumpkin? Starbucks can't be the main reason.
Could the economy be another factor in pumpkin's meteoric rise?
"One of the trends we've seen is that in tough economic times, indulgent foods still win," said Nielsen's Hale.
He added that premium chocolates and coffee also have been showing more growth recently when compared to their more run-of-the-mill counterparts.
When you're feeling financially stressed, it can be a nice escape to treat yourself to a rich dessert or a fine beverage.
Besides, he added, "What makes you happier than pumpkin?"