Consumers are craving heat and spice, perhaps now more than ever, thanks to the blending of cultures, the spread of new ideas and flavors, and the wide reach of media.
“There really is such a demand for hot and spicy flavors right now and it’s growing,” says Lisa Stern, vice president of sales and marketing for LifeSpice Ingredients in Chicago. “You have all these different flavor components blending together and creating new flavors and people are just trying more.”
A big reason for that is the influence of Hispanic and Korean cultures, both of which incorporate heat and spice in everyday dishes.
“We have such a large Hispanic influence and they’re used to having bold, hot flavors,” Stern says. “They have lots of chilis in their food. In places like Texas and California, where the population of Hispanics is so much greater, they’re mixing their cuisine into traditional American cuisine.”
In other parts of the country, like New York, Korean influence is bringing flavor components together to create new, bold flavors. This has culinary professionals exploring new flavorful ingredients to turn up the heat, looking for global and regional recipes to layer in familiar flavors with bold spices.
“An increasingly multicultural population, more frequent global travel and changing demographics are mega-trends leading the charge for American consumers’ desire for hot and spicy flavors,” says Colleen McDonald, marketing manager for Wixon, Inc., in St. Francis, Wisconsin. “Food trucks, where flavor fusion and food mash-ups are standard fare, are a great example of the convergence of these mega-trends.”
Shannon Cushen, director of marketing, Fuchs North America, Hampstead, Maryland, says, “The push for hot and spicy flavors is really being driven by millennials. They’re adventurous eaters, and they are open to new and exciting ingredients, including different types of peppers. Anything that delivers that addictive heat is going to win with millennials. What is interesting about hot and spicy foods is that sometimes it is more about the challenge or experience of eating them, than it is about the flavor itself.”
And part of the rise in heat is a simple product of television and print publications.
“We’ve been saying it for a while and it really is true: there are so many cooking shows and so much out there that are making these trends seem more common to people. They see it on Food Network and then they see it in a magazine,” Stern says. “It might be something as simple as Self magazine talking about a light recipe that incorporates heat and spice into it to make up for the fat and other stuff that’s not in it.”
How hot is hot?
This exploration of heat has resulted in consumers’ tolerance of heat improving during the past decade. What qualifies as hot and spicy continues to evolve.
“Americans have grown to love hot and spicy food,” says Andrew Hunter, foodservice and industrial corporate chef, Kikkoman Sales USA Inc., San Francisco. “Ingredients that were once considered cutting-edge and daring, like chipotle chilis – let’s call them ‘Hot and Spicy 1.0’ and sriracha — ‘Hot and Spicy 2.0’ — are woven into our diets and our recipes. They’re an expected part of today’s flavor pantry.”
While companies may want to steer clear of insanely hot recipes, Stern is remindful that if the kick isn’t evident, the end consumers will likely end up dissatisfied.
“Generally, for us, when we make something that’s spicy, we try to make it true to the name. If you’re going to name something ‘Fire House Hotter Than Hell Chili,’ it better be hot,” she says. “If it’s just ‘Hot and Spicy’ and we go middle of the road, you still need to detect the heat. Consumers are going to be disappointed if they can’t detect it.”
And a big part of that is the experience consumers are seeking when they go for hot flavors.
Roger Lane, marketing manager of savory flavors for Sensient Flavors in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, says there is an increasing interest in what he calls sensory overload in the food landscape. “Hot and spicy flavors connect with consumers in a way that a standard flavor cannot,” he says. “It’s the nose clearing, the tongue tingling and even the burning on their fingers that gets them excited about eating something spicy.”
The next sriracha?
We’ve seen the rise and sustained success of sriracha, but what comes next in the realm of spicy flavors?
Well, perhaps more sriracha, for starters. “Sriracha is starting to morph,” says Stern. “It used to be that it was just red. Now you’re starting to see it in green formats as well. You’re seeing kind of an evolution of sriracha.”
Outside of sriracha, Middle Eastern flavors are growing in popularity: things like baharat and zaatar. Also trending are Korean flavors like gochujang, a savory, sweet and spicy fermented condiment made from red chili powder and fermented soybean powder.
“Gochujang and harissa are among the sauces most cited as ‘the next possible sriracha,’” says Lacey Eckert, market development specialist with Kalsec, Inc., in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “They combine the trends of heat with the popularity of an ethnic profile.”
Eckert also names the Middle Eastern condiment zhug — a combination of cilantro and jalapenos with other spices — and sambal, another Asian sauce incorporating chilies, as flavors to watch.
Stern says the combination of spicy and sweet, an ever-popular experience, is growing even more in popularity.
“You’re finding heat and sweet blended together even more, things like honey sriracha or maple and jalapeno,” she says. “Next year for our Global Flavors we’re doing a honey and buffalo. You’re seeing the sweet and heat complement each other. They just pair really well together.”