Bringing the heat

by Keith Nunes
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Amy Alarcon, director of culinary innovation for Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, Atlanta, recommends anyone interested in learning how the market for spicy food products has evolved visit their local supermarket produce aisle.

"There are stands and aisle end caps full of different types of dried peppers," she said. "Consumers are becoming much more educated and seeking variety in how they bring spice and heat to their meals."

The trend of adding heat to foods has evolved during the past 5 to 10 years. While still a niche, product developers are no longer focused on seeing how hot they may make a product using hot sauce brands like Delicious Suffering or Spontaneous Combustion. Today’s market is more sophisticated as product developers are exposed to a greater variety of peppers and spices from Mexico, Thailand and India.

"At first it was adding heat just to make a product hot," said Kevin McDermott, executive chef for International Flavors and Fragrances, New York. "Today, more people are developing an understanding of the different profiles of heat, the complexity of it. There is a big change going from a Tabasco-type heat to a roast chipotle."

Rudolph Foods Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio, recently introduced its OnYums snack product with a Louisiana Hot Sauce flavor (for more information, see Page 42 of this issue).

"We noticed what was going on with hot seasonings and saw them getting quite a bit of play as far as future trends," said Mark Singleton, vice-president of marketing and sales. "We think the items we make are a little under-flavored when compared to the rest of the (snack) market and wanted to develop a broader line of flavors."

Mr. Singleton added that consumer exposure to a variety of hot and spicy products has raised the bar as far as what consumers will tolerate in terms of heat.

"I remember when Cajun emerged as a trend," he said. "There was Cajun, blackened everything on menus and it was considered very hot at first. Today, everyone eats it and it is not considered hot anymore."

Ms. Alarcon said several evolving trends have led to the burgeoning demand for spicy products.

"Adding heat to products has become very mainstream," she said. "There was always the idea that baby boomers are aging and will require foods with more seasonings for impact. I think that was the key driver of the trend, but we have also had such a huge influx of immigrants from all over the world and many of these cultures from Asia and Mexico, for example, are having a huge influence."

Mr. McDermott said from a volume perspective Mexico and Latin America are still the key sources of peppers used in product development. Looking ahead for the next chipotle or habanero pepper, Mr. McDermott said Scotch Bonnet, which belongs to the same species as habanero, and bird’s eye, an Asian pepper common to Thailand and southeast Asia, are two to watch. He also said the food industry may see a trend toward regional peppers in the United States.

"Just like you are seeing the trend of where pork is raised or where cattle for beef come from, there may be increased demand for the same type of information about the sources of spice in products and on menus," he said.

"Everyone has some form of heat on their menu," Ms. Alarcon said. "Chipotle is the most widespread, but others like ancho, guajillo and pasilla are emerging. We are seeing them at fine dining and that is where our ideas often come from."

Mr. McDermott added that from a future trend perspective, the emergence of products and menu items that offers both spicy, hot notes and a cooling factor may become popular.

"It is something you see in India," he said. "There is an initial sensation of heat, but then there is the incorporation of yogurt or a sauce that provides a cooling sensation."

He added that he does not see the demand for spicy flavors waning.

"It has addictive properties," he said. "People will develop a tolerance for one level of heat, then want a little more, and there will always be ways to add to the complexity of a flavor to develop something new."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, April 28, 2009, starting on Page 32. Click
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