Not too hot

Food and beverage product developers may wish to practice caution and not go too high on the heat levels. The sweet flavor initially mitigates the heat, which allows consumers to taste the flavor characteristics of the pepper, Mr. Vdoviak said. Then the heat appears as an after-burn.

“I think dishes and formulations reach the largest target audience using moderate to high heat levels,” he said. “When you step up to inferno and incendiary heat levels, popularity can drop off along with consumption amounts.”

Mr. McLester said the perception of heat varies based on how sweet the product is.
Mole poblano contains chili peppers and chocolate.

“The sweeter something is, the more delayed the heat perception will be,” he said. “Each pepper has a different Scoville heat unit, so sweet flavors will need to be adjusted accordingly to achieve the final desired flavor profile.”

A good deal of influence in sweet-heat flavor pairings comes from Caribbean and Latin American regions, Mr. Vdoviak said.

“People in these regions ate what was indigenous to the area,” he said. “Tropical fruits and hot chilies were plentiful. So it was natural to combine them in cooking, similar to the way Cajun cooking developed by combining French cooking techniques with produce and peppers available in Louisiana. The eclectic use of sweet/hot sauce combined with seafood and proteins produced diverse taste departures, and the flavors continue to originate in these areas today.”

Ms. Shieh said the Hispanic community’s growth in the United States is propelling the sweet-heat trend.

“The rapid growing popularity of mole sauces is a great example,” she said. “Mole poblano and mole negro — both have chili peppers and chocolate among many other ingredients — are now found in menus outside of Hispanic restaurants.”

Mr. Vdoviak said many Americans first encounter spicy flavors in ethnic dishes.

“So it makes sense that the authenticity they seek in ethnic flavors carries through to various categories,” he said. “Also, seeing the specific varietal of a pepper in the ingredients list or on the label may seem more authentic and present a ‘cleaner’ label than if they were to see a chemical-sounding name.”