NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The start of fall is no longer marked by a sudden temperature drop in early September, but rather the onslaught of pumpkin-flavored products at fast food restaurants and in supermarkets.
Call it "pumpkin creep." And this year promises to bring even more of it as a plethora of food companies look to cash in on continued hot demand for the autumn staple. For the 52 weeks ended July 25, sales of pumpkin-flavored products gained 11.6% to $323.9 million, according to research outfit Nielsen. Although still a healthy pace, growth in the pumpkin-flavored category actually slowed from a 12.1% gain at this time last year and a 20.5% rise in 2013.
"Pumpkin isn't just for pie filling anymore -- pumpkin-flavored cream and coffee are two large growth drivers of pumpkin-flavored products," pointed out Jennifer Campuzano, client director at Nielsen, in an interview.
There are several categories in particular leading the charge in pumpkin this year. Sales of pumpkin-flavored baby food have surged 135% over the last 52 weeks, ready-to-eat cereal sales are up a cool 182%, and refrigerated juice drinks have skyrocketed 241%. Salty snacks are doing well, too, with sales up 72%. Nut maker Planters, a division of Kraft Heinz (KHC), is readying to put some pumpkin on snack shelves at supermarkets.
Available in mid-September, the snacks section at Wal-Mart (WMT) and Amazon (AMZN) will have limited edition Planters pumpkin spice almonds (pictured above). In a review, TheStreet found the nuts' flavor reminiscent of a Starbucks (SBUX) pumpkin-spiced latte, with a hint of cinnamon.
Nielson's Campuzano also shed light on solid growth in categories that have traditionally not been targeted for pumpkin flavoring, such as dog food and yogurt.
TheStreet takes a look at three of the most prominent pumpkin flavored products about to hit the market in September.
1. Starbucks "Real" Pumpkin Spice Latte
Starbucks announced on Aug. 17 that it was cleaning up the ingredient list on its popular pumpkin spice latte (affectionately known as the "PSL") drink to address health concerns and keep sales of the fall favorite hot.
"After hearing from customers and partners about ingredients, we took another look at this beverage and why we created it so many years ago," said Peter Dukes, Starbucks' director of espresso beverages in the Americas. The drink will use real pumpkin puree for the first time, and will exclude artificial caramel coloring following an outcry over its faux ingredients a year ago.
Starbucks' PSL arrives in stores Sept. 8, compared to Sept. 23 last year.
"This new update really brings about the theme of transparency and 'real' and 'natural' qualifiers that are inundating the food service industry," said Lizzy Freier, menu analysis editor at research firm Technomic.
Starbucks is not alone in the restaurant space in hurrying to bring its pumpkin-flavored product to market. Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.A) (BRK.B) Dairy Queen has already unveiled its Pumpkin Pie Blizzard. Tim Horton's (a division of Restaurants Brands International (QSR) ), Caribou Coffee and Einstein Bros. Bagels have all launched or are about to launch their pumpkin offerings, noted Freier.
About 9.9% of food service companies have an item with pumpkin in it currently, according to Technomic.
2. Panera Bread's "Clean" Pumpkin Spice Latte
On Sept. 9, all of Panera Bread's (PNRA) 1,900 U.S. locations will carry a "clean" version of its seasonal pumpkin spice latte, meaning that it will have no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or sweeteners. Panera's pumpkin spice latte will be made from real pumpkin puree (like Starbucks' revamped PSL), espresso, natural spices, and molasses as a sweetener. To make the drink "clean" for this fall season, Panera removed a number of additives: monoglycerides, diglycerides, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate.
In a taste test of Panera's new fall treat, pictured above, TheStreet found it to be relatively similar in flavor compared to the one the company has served in years past. The molasses did make the drink a little sweeter and a little more potent, energy-wise.
Real pumpkin or not, the drink is still a high-calorie indulgence. The 16-ounce version of Panera's latte contains 450 calories, 76 grams of carbohydrates and 179 milligrams of caffeine.
3. Dunkin Donuts Pumpkin Cheesecake Squares
Launched this week, Dunkin Brands' (DNKN) square-shaped seasonal donut (pictured above) is filled with creamy pumpkin cheesecake filling and topped with orange icing, crumbled graham cracker and a white icing drizzle. It complements Dunkin's already extensive pumpkin-flavored menu for the fall, which includes hot and iced pumpkin coffee and lattes, a pumpkin donut, pumpkin Munchkins, a pumpkin muffin and pumpkin K-Cups and packaged coffee.
"The return of pumpkin in September brought news and incremental sales to both coffee and espresso products," said Dunkin Brands CEO Nigel Travis in an October 2013 earnings call. This year's third quarter may bring more of the same for Dunkin given the release of the pumpkin cheesecake square and ongoing interest by consumers in pumpkin-flavored drinks.
In a taste test ahead of their national debut, TheStreet found the pumpkin cheesecake squares to be a substantial donut. One reviewer said he wouldn't mind paying more for the product, as it was both filling and on the mark in terms of pumpkin flavor. Another believed there was "a lot going on" with the donut, like the heavy dose of cream cheese filling and icing with graham crackers.
All in all, the latest creation from Dunkin reviewed well, and is a logical way to extend the company premium donut franchise and boost sales.