Fall won't officially arrive until Sept. 23, but don't tell that to purveyors of pumpkin spice.
Since Starbucks announced the early return of its most famous seasonal drink, pumpkin spice has taken the food industry by storm. A recent article from Time reported that the flavor has now made its way into Oreos, M&Ms, Pringles and even a gourmet hamburger.
Pumpkin spice is America's reigning autumnal obsession, and industry research shows it's paying off in big ways for the businesses that have it on their menus.
"In 2013, Americans spent $308 million on pumpkin-flavored products," Vox.com reported, drawing on data from Nielsen, a consumer research firm. The article describes Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte as the "crown jewel" of the craze, noting that more than 200 million PSLs have been purchased (for around $4 a pop) since the beverage debuted in 2003.
"Since 2006, industry tracker Mintel has found that pumpkin as a beverage ingredient has grown 130 percent on U.S. menus. Since 2004, the use of pumpkin as a flavor in food on menus has increased ten-fold," Fortune reported. And the trend shows no sign of losing speed.
According to several analysts in the food industry, pumpkin spice's staying power should be attributed to its association with comfort food in the minds of consumers.
"In our current culture, in which there's been a loss of traditions, people are seeking out forms of comfort and security that they had as children. The smell of pumpkin spice brings them back to those moments," Fortune reported.
Bill Chidley, a brand consultant at ChangeUp, told Bloomberg that pumpkin is a comfort food for Americans. "It's just a perennial favorite, like turkey at Thanksgiving, eggnog at Christmas, fireworks on the Fourth of July," he said.
However, there's irony in that position, given that most pumpkin spice-flavored items don't actually contain pumpkin. According to The Old Farmer's Almanac, the recipe for pumpkin spice includes cinnamon, ginger, ground nutmeg, cloves and allspice.
But even if, as Vox.com noted, a Pumpkin Spice Latte favors spices and "pumpkin sauce" over actual pumpkin extract, its fame in the food industry benefitted farmers as well. The extra demand for pumpkin-related products pushed pumpkin prices up 11 percent in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.