When it Comes to Flavor, Spices and Herbs Are Replacing Heat

Oct. 11, 2018
Heat levels may be moderating, but consumer desire for interesting new flavors is being met by spices and herbs.

For the longest time the consumer mantra was “bring on the heat,” and the more the better. Herb and spice suppliers, however, say heat levels are dialing down a bit as today’s consumer seeks more complexity and greater depths of flavor.

“If you’re bringing the heat, you’d better bring the flavor with it,” says Dax Schaefer, corporate executive chef and director of culinary innovation for Asenzya Inc. (

He noted that a few short years ago ghost chili was in vogue in answer to the quest for the highest level of heat. Today consumers want a little burn, not a “melt-your-face” experience, he says. Instead of ghost pepper, chefs are diving into international hot sauces such as sambal or harissa and even peri-peri.

Gary Augustine, executive director of market development for Kalsec Inc. ( agrees. “Based on consumer research, we see the frequency of the consumption of hot and spicy foods is increasing, but heat levels are moderating.”

While consumers are still incorporating heat into their consumption patterns, heat is taking on more complexity, such as sweet heat combinations or ethnic cuisines that combine a variety of herbs and spices with some type of chili pepper, Augustine adds.

McCormick Flavor Solutions ( points to the trend of reaction flavors, which the company claims consumers find more inspiring than a “dare challenge” related to heat alone. Technique-inspired reaction flavors, produced by searing, roasting, toasting or smoking a pepper, yield a more complex and balanced flavor profile than using the chili without further processing.

Reaction flavors can combine with global cuisines. The company supplied one example of chile de árbol toasted with pepitas, for a nutty, smoky flavor. McCormick says these reaction flavors can help create savory yogurt dips, snacks, culinary flavor bases and even appear in beverages.

In terms of particular spices, a McCormick spokesperson said turmeric shows few signs of letting up. Turmeric provides standout visual appeal, however it doesn’t usually stand alone in flavor profiles and often is accompanied by other spices such as ginger.

Gazing into 2019

Schaefer notes that traditional ethnic cuisine and new dishes allow consumers to explore the globe through food. He predicts that in 2019 consumer focus will turn to a more authentic view of Mexican cuisine and wander further into the Pacific Rim.

In terms of Mexican food, consumers want salsa verde instead of just salsa, or barbacoa tacos, “not another ground beef taco with Cheddar cheese,” says Schaefer. “But also watch for some fusion Indian dishes to catch on. If we, as chefs, can make Indian food approachable it would be accepted.”

While Americans are not in the same place with Indian as they are with Mexican food, Schaefer adds, “We are starting to see some cracks in the shell of acceptance.” He noted a few fast food concepts are promoting Indian dishes, and this could be a catalyst to break down barriers to help consumers embrace this flavorful cuisine. “Look for approachable dishes such as chicken masala or tandoori chicken to be some of the most recognizable options.”

Coming up in the latter portion of 2018 and leading into 2019, Kalsec sees a continuation of Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines as consumers “explore the warm, earthy spices of this region” combined with fermented characteristics found in the east.

Asian flavors also are called out by Wixon Inc. (, but with segmentation into sub-regional Asian influences -- Burmese, Laotian and Filipino. “These cuisines combine sweet and sour components, imparting even more unique complexity,” says Kim Cornelius, senior food scientist. “So we’ll see greater use of tamarind, pickled mango, galangal (ginger), annatto and coriander.”

She adds that complexity mixed with interesting nuances creates a sort of “eating destination” for the consumer.

Andrew Wheeler, director of marketing for Van Drunen Farms ( sees Indian and Thai cuisines moving into the mainstream and that these dishes “call for whole fruit and vegetable ingredients such as mango and chilies.”

The snack category continues to be a hot application for the addition of herbs and spices. Companies are taking a “bland deliverable” such as a cracker or chip and offering a variety of flavors, says Wheeler. This can either be achieved by a topical application or by including vegetables as the flavor, such as pumpkin, sweet potato, tomato, carrot, kale and spinach.

Spicing up analogues

As consumers embrace flexitarian dining habits, the plant-based trend is expanding to include meat analogues. And most meat analogues – based on soy, wheat and pea proteins -- can benefit from the addition of spices and herbs to help create a more favorable flavor.

Breadings, sauces and condiments can go a long way toward making meat analogues more palatable and acceptable to consumers, Austin Lowder of DuPont Health & Nutrition ( said in a talk at the Institute of Food Technologists’ Annual Meeting & Expo this past July.

According to Augustine, one delivery method involves adding spices and herbs as a liquid into the matrix of the meat analogue while another method can be achieved by plating an extract onto a carrier such as salt or maltodextrin and then incorporating them into a seasoning for a rub.

Many of the spices and herbs commonly used in animal-based meat products can help consumers shift to plant-based analogues. “Salt, peppers (white, black and red), garlic, onion and other savory spices will contribute their familiar taste to plant-based meat products,” predicts Mel Mann, director of flavor innovation at Wixon.

One suggestion for formulators from Wixon is to mine the spices and herbs common to Asia, India and the Middle East. Plant-forward dining is entrenched in both culture and cuisine in those parts of the world, and the ethnic flavors typical of those regions are increasingly sought by American consumers. This could help create more acceptable products within the plant-based analogue category.

A portion of the interest in plant-forward dining relates to clean label, and that will require naturally sourced spice and herb extracts to keep the label consumer-friendly.

“Interestingly, whole food ingredients like celery powder are being used as a clean meat preservative for natural, healthy whole food alternatives that clean up the label,” adds Wheeler.

Schaefer, too, is more than happy about the movement to clean label. “This is a great thing,” he notes. Spices and herbs, he says, dovetail perfectly with clean label and consumers “love” to see them on the ingredient deck. “Spices and herbs are natural ingredients with the unparalleled ability to take a basic dish and turn it into something special in the right hands.”

Banishing microbes

Food safety takes precedence over any flavor adventure. And spice and herb suppliers do their best to stay on top of the microbial count in their products.

Schaefer notes that spices and herbs need to be treated or sterilized prior to use to help protect the end consumer. Of the three main methods used, irradiation and steam are most common, with ethylene oxide used a bit less. The process used for sterilization isn’t required to be listed on the label statement, he adds.

“I would use all three, but irradiation does the best job,” he says. “I have always developed products with the credo that if I don’t want my kids to eat it, I won’t put it in for someone else. I trust irradiation.”

Augustine says that because of the low water activity in liquid extracts, they provide much greater microbial stability than standard dry spices. A study by Covance Laboratories showed a 6-log reduction in salmonella in Kalsec’s process. A 5-log reduction is an industry target for pathogenic salmonella in a validated kill step that no longer represents a concern for human illness.

The safety procedures employed by herb and spice providers can ensure that consumers will be able to continue to enjoy whatever heat threshold they choose and travel the globe on flavor adventures without fear.

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