Global travel, immigration and more adventurous palates are increasing the interest in spicy foods. Practically unheard of five years ago, the fermented sriracha chili sauce from Huy Fong is fast becoming a mainstream condiment in this country. Thai and Mexican entrees in the frozen food case are boldly flavored, and even candy is going spicy. All of this lip smacking stems from the overall increase in consumers’ food savvy, making Americans -- especially millennial foodies -- more likely to experiment with hot sauces, exotic spices and more.
According to Barb Stuckey, chief innovation officer at Mattson, a contract product development company, hot sauce is a $1 billion market worldwide. "It’s not just a billion dollars; it’s about a billion bottles of hot sauce," she says. "That’s one bottle for every seven people on Earth." In the U.S., hot sauce sales have grown by 150 percent since 2000 − more than the sum of the growth of all other traditional condiments combined, says Euromonitor.
When used appropriately, spices can replace sodium and other "unwanted" ingredients in foods and can help accentuate a dish's flavor profile. Some even have nutraceutical properties. But it's clear that for many consumers, spice is all about the heat.
Five 'grate' trends
As summer barbecue season heats up, hot flavors for the backyard grill include smoky, spicy, tangy flavors, Brazilian red chimichurri and East Asian flavors, according to McCormick & Co.'s Flavor Forecast for 2016--Grilling Edition. "The summer of 2016 will be about incorporating smoky, spicy, tangy flavors in new ways we’ve never seen before," affirms executive chef Kevan Vetter at the Sparks, Md., company.
Spice rubs that caramelize the outer layer of ground meat bring loads of flavor. Brazilian red chimichurri, a hot version of the classic Argentinian sauce, gets its flavor from cumin, smoked paprika and crushed red pepper and pairs well with skewered meats and even seafood. East Asian flavors of sweet, spicy soy create zippy sauces and marinades for Japanese, Malaysian, Thai and Korean dishes, depending on which spices are used. Fresh chilies paired with tangy vinegars and mustards can bring contrasting flavors to grilled chicken Po Boys with spicy Creole mustard sauce, a variation on the classic Louisiana sandwich, McCormick adds.
Really hot stuff is catching on in many food categories. PepsiCo's Frito-Lay Div. offers Flamin' Hot Cheetos, while competitor Herr's offers potato chips in both Hot Sauce (co-branded with Texas Pete hot sauce) and Red Hot. Tomato processor Red Gold has co-branded a handful of new products – ketchup, salsa and canned tomatoes -- with sriracha icon Huy Fong (although Heinz had a sriracha ketchup earlier). Chobani recently launched a new Flip yogurt in Sriracha Mango. Even ice creams are experimenting with heat.
How hot is too hot?
Can foods with heat be too hot? That depends on who's eating.
"If you look at the repeat purchase data of certain items, yes, some foods can get too hot," notes Dax Schaefer, corporate executive chef at Asenzya, formerly Foran Spice Co., a Milwaukee provider of spice blends and functional ingredients. "Look at the ghost chili pepper. It will get a lot of attention when it's on a menu or retail item, but it's more of a fear factor type of trial. Few will be regular repeat buyers."
The more capsaicin a pepper contains, the hotter it is. The most popular peppers in retail right now are the Mexican varietals, such as jalapeno, serrano, habanero and chipotle, Schaefer says. "Mexican peppers are easy for American consumers to accept. They have been eating them for years at local Mexican restaurants. Mexican chili peppers are incredibly diverse. Each has a unique flavor profile and just a little bit can add depth to a dish. A single ingredient can influence the finished profile and turn a simple dish into something new and exciting."
Hellfire Smoked Habanero Sea Salt is the scary name of one of the products from Saltworks. The Woodinville, Wash., firm offers numerous flavored salts; Wildfire and Bonfire also are in the Smokehouse line with Hellfire. A proprietary infusion process naturally bonds savory or spicy ingredients to each salt crystal.
Another of the company's products, Venom, boasts a warning label indicating it's "the hottest salt in the world." Not for the faint of heart, Venom is crafted to produce a flaming-hot, scorching flavor, made with light, flaky sea salt and Trinidad scorpion peppers, said to be hotter than ghost peppers. "It's suitable for manufacturers looking to add a lot of spice to hot sauce-branded items and other on-trend pepper products, from snack foods to spice rubs," says Saltworks' Megan O'Keefe.
One of the company's most in-demand flavors, Fusion Sriracha Sea Salt combines the bold, tangy heat of Thai sriracha chili sauce with pure, crunchy flake sea salt. Other hot salts are chipotle, habanero, ghost pepper and jalapeno. Saltworks also makes cooler but equally unusual salts in black truffle, espresso and matcha, among others.
Candy also has its own spin on spicy. One of Mars' three new peanut M&M flavors hitting store shelves this spring is Chili Nut (along with Honey Nut and Coffee Nut). The sweet heat of Chili Nut was a standout during testing, Mars says, and was a leading flavor concept in focus groups.
Flavorful hot is in, Schaefer says. "The Mexican chili varietals and international hot sauces are starting to gain a lot of momentum," he points out. "They have heat with good flavor depth, so it’s not just hot for hot's sake. Sriracha and Gochujang, Harissa and Sambal Oelek are starting to enter that adaptation phase of a trend."
'Punching bland in the face'
It's happening in mainstream foodservice, as well. Burger King in 2009 introduced the Angry Whopper, with spicy crispy onions, jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, bacon, tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise and spicy "Angry Sauce." But that wasn't hot enough. The chain recently unleashed the Angriest Whopper − a grilled beef patty featuring, "angry" onion petals, jalapenos and a spicy "angry" sauce described as "intense," all couched between a bright red bun with hot sauce literally baked into it.
What fast-food chain doesn't have a spicy chicken sandwich? Buffalo Wild Wings and Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen were founded on spicy chicken.
New sauces from Lee Kum Kee hit stores nationwide in March. The Sriracha BBQ sauce adds a tasty kick to chicken and pulled pork or as a dip or marinade. The Sriracha Stir-Fry Sauce and Panda brand Ready Sauce for Honey Sesame Chicken can jazz up vegetables, upgrade shrimp cocktail and create authentic Chinese-style dishes in minutes. Panda Ready Sauce for Korean BBQ Stir-Fry gives classic Chinese entrees real zip.
Korean BBQ is also a new sweet and spicy flavor of Jack Link's flame-grilled pork jerky, which, after a special new process is finished over an open flame to provide an authentic aroma and highlight flavors of the pork, double toasted sesame seeds and caramelized brown sugar.
Indian food hits hot flavor buttons and fits in with the healthy trend, as many choices include fruits and vegetables as well as bold, exciting flavors and spices. Saffron Road's simmer sauces in pouches incorporate enough spices to fill a bazaar. They include Harissa, made from piri piri red peppers, Korean Stir Fry, containing pungent Korean gochugaru peppers and smoky Moroccan, with dates, tamarind, turmeric and paprika.
There are many reasons why hot food is firing up so many food market channels, sums up Stuckey. There are far more ethnic restaurants and packaged food brands, consumers are more food savvy, and there's a great influx of immigrants who love chilis, curry, pepper and mole sauces from around the world.