​Pumpkins get squashed amid pumpkin-spice craze

It may be enough to bring the Great Pumpkin to tears.

Americans love anything pumpkin-flavored -- pumpkin-flavored tea, coffee-creamers, marshmallows and beer are among some of the fall-themed foods now hitting store shelves. But not so much the real thing. Sales of actual pumpkins have been on the decline since 2010, while at the same time consumers are snapping up ever more numbers of pumpkin-flavored products, according to new data from Nielsen.

While pumpkin bread is a long-standing fall favorite, the flavor has extended to products one wouldn't normally associate with the orange gourd. Seeking to leverage the American appetite for the fall flavor, companies are rolling out such oddball creations as pumpkin-spice sugar-free gum and pumpkin-flavored dog food, perhaps under the thinking that if the owner loves it, maybe their dog will too.

Call it peak pumpkin. Except for the pumpkins, of course.

For the past five years, sales of fresh pumpkins have fallen year-over-year except in 2012, when they rose slightly, Nielsen said. That means 8.6 million fewer pumpkins were sold last year at grocery stores than in 2010. Nielsen's numbers don't include pumpkins sold a nonfood outlets, such as farms.

Pumpkin-flavored food sales have jumped 16 percent to $96.3 million during the last four years, the research company said. Among the category's most popular new products are pumpkin-flavored cream and coffee.

So, what's driving America's split personality when it comes to the gourd? Blame it on the difficult nature of carving and cooking a pumpkin. Americans would much rather shell out a few bucks for a sweet treat with pumpkin flavoring, even if there's no actual pumpkin inside. Starbucks (SBUX), which is often credited with kicking off the craze by introducing pumpkin spice latte in 2003, didn't include real pumpkin in the steamed drink until this year.

"While 50 percent of U.S. consumers are actively trying to lose weight, they're overlooking fresh pumpkin to satisfy their craving, instead opting for indulgent treats like baked goods, dips and sweets, where sales have steadily increased," Nielsen said in a statement.