Adding heat to a food or beverage has become an effective form of product differentiation. As food and beverage product developers have explored the possibilities, the range of spicy products offered has grown to create a dynamic marketplace.

Kalsec Inc, Kalamazoo, Mich., has developed its HeatSync Heat Indexes, which, in cooperation with Mintel International, reviews the market research firm’s Menu Insights and Global New Products Database, to track the development of the category.

“Since Kalsec first introduced our Heat Indexes, we have seen several trends in the hot and spicy flavor category,” said Jill McKeague, market development manager for the company. “First, the prevalence of hot and spicy products continues to grow each year. This is true both on restaurant menus as well as in new product launches.

“Second, the popularity of different peppers being utilized in the industry has evolved as well. While jalapeño has always been a favorite, the use of chipotle, habanero and cayenne peppers has significantly increased over the years. Finally, the variety of peppers being used has also grown tremendously. Peppers like the piquillo, aji amarillo, peppadew piquant and guajillo are all starting to become more mainstream.”

Ms. McKeague added that consumer interest in spicy flavors continues to grow. Citing Technomic Inc. data, she noted that 42% of consumers find spicy, sweet flavor combinations to be appealing and 4 out of 10 consumers find spicy and tangy flavors to be appealing.

“Perhaps the only surprising thing about this trend is this overarching quality that spans the entire food and beverage industry,” she said. “Kalsec conducted a survey of 1,455 U.S. consumers and found that the preference for hot and spicy foods is evident in a wide variety of applications, including snacks, meals, sauces, desserts and beverages. This hot and spicy preference also spans all dayparts. Ninety-four per cent of consumers indicated that they eat hot and spicy food at dinner, and two out of five consumers enjoy hot and spicy food at breakfast.”

Barb Zatto, director of culinary for Mizkan Americas, Mount Prospect, Ill., noted that the trend toward spicy foods is an elevation of comfort foods, but with a twist for millennial consumers.

“Americans are very comfortable with spicy foods,” she said. “They’ve eaten Mexican food and are seeing more Latin American-influenced products.”

Ron Heddleson, senior director of research and development for QualiTech, Inc., Chaska, Minn., sees several market dynamics driving the trend toward spicy foods.

“I think part of it is due to the increasingly diverse population within the U.S.,” he said. “There are greater international influences, even in the Midwest, where we have growing Hispanic and Somali populations. Millennials are also drivers of the change towards spicier offerings, displaying a great willingness to try new ethnic cuisines. People are traveling more and are experiencing new flavors and cultures.”

The other interesting market trend, he added, is how a lot of flavors associated with entrees are translating into snacks.

“We are seeing more complexity added to the heat,” Mr. Heddleson said. “Again, the use of sriracha is a good example. Once you’ve started to see profiles like sriracha adopted into product lines like Chex Mix and Lay’s potato chips, you know those trends have become large and mainstream. But I think the key thing is there is an expansion of flavor profiles beyond heat. It’s not about Scoville units — it’s about the complexity between the heat and spice.”

Heat and finesse

Qualitech recently introduced a series of flavor pairings, two of which were a combination of mango/habanero and honey/chipotle.

“QualiTech makes ingredients for market categories that include baked goods, snacks and batters and breadings, among others,” Mr. Heddleson said. “Often times what people want in those types of products are authentic, ethnic flavors for new product lineups. Hot, spicy flavors add excitement to what may be established or blander product lines.

“In the case of the mango/habanero or honey/chipotle combinations, we wanted to deliver ‘spicy heat’ flavor impact that would be quick and then dissipate, instead of lingering and building too much. We tried to balance it with the sweet component, which really helps to complement the early heat.”

Ms. Zatto said that developing flavor combinations that incorporate a sweet or savory component requires finesse.

“I think where we are right now with spicy foods is some people are learning the proper use of ingredients,” she said. “Some people are using too much, too little or not enough.”

One key element for the successful combination of heat with a sweet or savory flavor is balance, Ms. McKeague said.

“Finding the perfect balance that allows each flavor to contribute to the overall taste sensation is truly an art,” she said. “The matrix will play a significant role in the heat expression as well. A matrix with more fat content, such as chocolate, will require a higher level of a pungent ingredient to achieve the same perceived pungency as a matrix with a lower fat content, such as a soup. When combining this pungency with additional flavors, you can imagine the added complexity. The ratio of pungent ingredient to sweet or savory flavors most likely will not remain the same as the developer switches between product bases.”

Ms. Zatto added that an ingredient’s form may also impact a product’s flavor.

“Take guajillo, for example,” she said. “When it is dried it changes the flavor profile. One ingredient is not going to serve all needs.”

Fresh and local

In addition to unique flavor profiles, some consumers are also interested in the freshness of the ingredients used to produce spicy products. The category demand is born out of the clean label movement.

“In some cases, it’s not enough to have a clean label,” Ms. Zatto said. “Now there are consumers that want to know if an ingredient is non-G.M.O. That presents challenges for a company trying to procure ingredients.”

Ms. McKeague said she is finding the consumer is focused on fresh, authentic and bold flavors.

“This suggests that regional cuisines will grow in importance,” she said. “For the American consumer, the regional specificity will most likely depend on the consumers’ familiarity with a geographical area. For instance, instead of thinking about Mexican cuisine, the consumer may start to look for Oaxacan dishes. For an area of the world that is a bit farther away, such as Asia, it will no longer be Asian cuisine, but specifically Malaysian, Vietnamese or Thai.

“As product developers prepare these different ethnic cuisines, it is imperative that the flavor is authentic. This may mean toasting the spices or using fresh herbs. Kalsec has responded to this need by developing both an extensive line of spice extracts and IsoFresh products, which give fresh herb notes even through food processing.”

Looking farther ahead, Ms. Zatto said Moroccan and Afghan cuisines may be two to watch.

“With Moroccan you are talking about red bell peppers, paprika, cumin mixed with warm spice,” she said. “With Afghan cuisine the heat is translated by cayenne, jalapeño mixed with warm spice. But what these have in common is they are using multiple spices and sources of heat to create a fuller flavor profile.”

As the food and beverage industry moves into 2015, Ms. McKeague thinks the trends for hot and spicy foods will continue to evolve.

“The variety of peppers that the consumer seeks out will continue to grow,” she said. “Instead of simply looking for a hot or spicy product, the consumer will most likely begin to look for a specific pepper to be in their product. The consumer is also moving away from just a straight-heat flavor to more complex flavor profiles.

“Roasted pepper flavors, combining a variety of peppers into one product and the incorporation of unique flavors are all possible areas of further growth. Ethnic cuisines, which often have complex notes along with pungency, will also grow in prevalence.”