Wheat Thins is a simple snack cracker that was at one time synonymous with its cute-but-smart 1980s celebrity spokesperson Sandy Duncan. Today's Wheat Thins, made under the Nabisco umbrella by Mondelez International, come in hot, spicy flavors that might have made the award-winning actress blush.
Product developers of the past sometimes used a careful measure of paprika or rosemary in a chip or a cracker formulation, but today they're more likely to go generous with a vinegar-Tabasco seasoning in something like the Wheat Thins Spicy Buffalo flavor.
With more consumers seeking foods that are lower in sodium, fat and sugars, there is an opportunity for spices and seasonings to fill a flavor void.
“We are seeing seasonings that have more heat to them,” says Kim Holman, director of marketing at Wixon Seasonings and Flavor Systems, St. Francis, Wis. “It's almost like a dare. It just gets hotter and hotter and hotter.”
Frito-Lay North America, a division of PepsiCo, has liberally extended its Cheetos brand. Variations on its Crunchy Cheetos include Flamin' Hot and Cheddar Jalapeño and related products like Dinamita Chile Limón-flavored rolled tortilla chips.
Of course spices and seasonings are used in nearly all food categories, and their contribution goes beyond flash and sizzle. They can add sophistication and nuance and bolster the flavor profile in a reformulation aimed at a more natural, healthful or clean-label product. Whether it's a new chili-powder that will help transform a prepared soup or a specially grown or sourced cinnamon for a bakery product, spices and seasonings can make or break a product.
In pursuit of the exotic
“The rise of ethnic flavors has brought about an exciting demand for non-traditional seasonings and spices,” says Ed McIntosh, marketing manager at Flavorchem Corp., Downers Grove, Ill. "Unique parings of flavors have given rise to seasoning blends in all major food and beverage segments.”
"As the consumer’s palate becomes more sophisticated, food manufacturers are looking to their ingredient suppliers to offer a broader range of solutions, including culinary blends based on regional ethnic cuisines," adds Gary Augustine, executive director of market development for Kalsec, Kalamazoo, Mich. To that end, Kalsec has developed a collection of blends that provide the distinguishing characteristics associated with regional cuisines, including Latin American, Asian and Indian.
Changing demographics are a big factor in why new spices are hitting the market; so are dining experiences at restaurants. “Ethnic restaurants introduce cuisines that have seasonings that are far from your typical table seasonings," says McIntosh. "People acquire a taste for them and that creates the demand we see today.”
Like many flavor companies, Wixon compiles a list of flavor trends to watch each year. Among the trendy spices highlighted this year are spices from across the globe that are traditionally used for teas.
“Many emerging spices and seasonings are coming from Africa, South America and the East,” says Jeanne Meeder, who directs Wixon's industrial ingredients and consumer products R&D department. “Examples would include ancient grains, ghost pepper, peri peri, matcha, and rooibos.
“One in particular that we are hearing a significant amount about is matcha,” says Wixon's Homan. “It's a bright green tea, with a shocking bright green color and it is high in fiber, and a good source of antioxidants.” Matcha will have applications in a variety of foods including nutrition bars and dairy products, and ice cream. Rooibos is high in minerals and flavonoids and it is caffeine-free. Wixon is developing a fitness tea application for rooibos.
“Sriracha will become what chipotle is now,” says Laurie Harrsen, who directs communications for McCormick & Co., Hunt Valley, Md. In addition to being the most recognized consumer brand, McCormick also sells to foodservice and food manufacturing channels.
What’s after that? “Harissa, Peri Peri, Korean Pepper paste/gochujan, and Japanese 7 Spice or Shichimi Togarashi," she lists.
Other chili peppers to watch (look to Mexico, South America & Asia): Aji Amarillo (Peruvian), Chile de Arbol, Guajillo, Serrano, Habanero, Aleppo Pepper and Tien Tsin (Sichuan).
Shichimi Togarashi is an emerging flavor for the U.S. It is art of the “amped up Asian” trend, Harrsen says.
“Chefs like David Chang and innovative food trucks update Asian dishes for a new generation. Japanese 7 Spice (Shichimi Togarashi) offers a new kind of spicy heat -- red chilis, sesame, orange zest, nori, white pepper, ginger and poppy seed,” she continues. “It adds a spicy, crunchy kick to vegetables, peppers, noodles, seafood, yakitori, soups, and even fries. Shichimi Togarashi on restaurant menus is up 150 percent since 2010 - featured on both app and entrée menus.”
Kalsec recently rolled out a line called Fusionary Heat. “These products were developed in response to the shift in consumer preference from a straight heat profile to more complex flavor profiles,” Augustine says. “They have an added culinary dimension to heat expression which results in non-traditional pairings of heat plus savory, sour, sweet, or tangy.”
Fusionary Heat products include citrus, herb and spice ingredients that are sourced from all over the world. Some examples include lemongrass, cardamom, and ginger as well as heat sources such as black pepper, chili peppers, jalapeno, chipotle, and habanero.
Another recent innovation from Kalsec is the expansion of its Expeller-Pressed Spice and Herb Extract line, which the company says is made with a “patented, carefully designed process intended to capture the true essence of spices and herbs.”
The product line now includes anise, capsicum, celery, chipotle, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, jalapeno, mace and paprika. In addition to being organic suitable and non-GMO, these products are acceptable under the Whole Foods Market standards, have excellent microbial stability and come in a convenient liquid form.
Chicago-based Newly Weds Foods, makes and sells a variety of food ingredients, and among them are capsicum products. Capsicum is the order of plants that are used to make chili peppers, red peppers, chili powders and paprika.
The plants are grown mostly in warm climes in South America and Asia where they are also initially dehydrated. They are then aged in caves before they are ground into powders. Newly Weds' line includes chili peppers, red peppers, ancho, chipotle, and jalapeno peppers, as well as chili powders and paprika.
McCormick's Harrsen says the proliferation of food media has impacted spice trends. "The acceptance of new flavors has accelerated as we are exposed to them virtually everywhere we turn — social media, food trucks, TV shows, blogs, websites like Amazon, and retail outlets," she says. "We have access to flavor like never before and the future of flavor looks great. The more authentic the flavors are, the better."
McCormick sites IRI data showing that herb and seasoning purchases are up 20 percent in the past five years.
Holman says Wixon is seeing more interest in freshness, or perceived freshness, which includes fresh herbs sold in the produce department or elsewhere as well as whole products for the grinder. “Texture and freshness are definitely important to the consumer,” she says. “They want to see that big leaf of basil, and they want to be able to grind spices as they are cooking.”
For food processors, that means sourcing herbs and spices that are in their whole form and working something closer to whole into formulas. Suppliers are hearing that and should be able to help product developers achieve that, Holman says.
And don't forget millennials. “The millennial generation will play an ever-important role in flavor exploration,” says Harrsen. “Millennials are more diverse, adventurous and tech-savvy, they seek authenticity and they’re driving bigger and bolder flavors, often inspired by global cuisines.”