The hot and spicy flavor trend has been around for years. But instead of slowing down, it is growing and filling store shelves with more diverse and hotter products. Last year, CPG companies, beverage manufacturers and restaurants rolled out product options enhanced with chili peppers, tabasco, wasabi, ginger, harissa and jalapeños, and Americans keep clamoring for more.
According to the Technomic Flavor Report 2019, demographic groups that love spicy flavors the most are men, Hispanics, millennials and Gen Z consumers. Custom research by McCormick & Company, manufacturer of spices and other products, describes spice lovers as “adventurous,” especially millennials, who look for something new, take roads not traveled and enjoy the thrill of trying new flavors. “Spicy lovers appreciate the spicy tingling sensation but prioritize flavor over heat,” the research noted. “They want something tasty more so than just something hot.”
84% of consumers have tried spicy flavors.
Research by Datassential finds that 38% of men and 29% of women surveyed say they love spicy flavors. According to Mark DiDomenico, Datassential director of customer success, “there’s not much of a regional skew [among spice lovers], but it’s a little lower in the Northeast and higher in the West and the South.”
“As a chef, spicy does not always mean hot,” said Gary Patterson, executive chef and culinary development director for McCormick & Company. “There are so many different types of peppers that offer spicy flavors but varying degrees of heat. Think of sweet bell peppers versus reaper peppers. They bring different aromas and flavor profiles to dishes and products.”
In addition to meat products with traditional flavors, Johnsonville Sausage of Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, offers heat-seeking consumers Hot and Spicy Sausage, Jalapeño Cheddar Sausage and Hatch Green Chili Links. “We know that 84% of consumers have tried spicy flavors,” said Kim Main, director of marketing, Johnsonville. “Spicy items are found on over 70% of restaurant menus, with jalapeño being the most popular. While spicy flavors don’t appeal to everyone, they index high with younger consumers ages 18 to 34.”
Just the word “spicy” on a product’s package can fire up sales. NielsenIQ reports that for total U.S. convenience stores, sales of items that mention “spicy” as a base flavor increased 3.1% from 2019 to 2020, on top of a 4.5% increase from 2018 to 2019.
Today’s spice lovers can find a pungent version of almost every product from nuts and snacks to pastries, such as last year’s Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut from Dunkin’, which featured strawberry icing plus ghost pepper and cayenne.
In June 2021, Blue Diamond Growers introduced three versions of Blue Diamond XTREMES almonds: Cayenne Pepper (hot), Ghost Pepper (hotter) and Carolina Reaper (super hot). “Through our research, we uncovered that there is a growing demand to really bring the heat to the category,” said Maya Erwin, vice president of innovation and R&D, Blue Diamond.
Consumers also have the option of cold— and spicy—beverages. In 2020, Modelo launched Chelada Mango y Chile, a Mexican brew combining mango with a hint of chili peppers, and several craft brewers boast of adding Scotch bonnet peppers, habaneros or chipotles to their libations. Last summer, PepsiCo introduced “MTN DEW FLAMIN’ HOT,” a canned limited time offer (LTO) that combined Mountain Dew with the flavor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
And if food isn’t hot enough, there are scores of condiments available to heat up a meal, such as Plochman’s Chicago Fire Mustard with Tabasco sauce or Frank’s RedHot sauce, which is credited with launching the Buffalo wing craze in 1964.
Anything with flaming hot, ghost pepper or other ‘super spicy’ branding is in demand.
Even pickles can pack a peppery punch. Van Holten’s of Waterloo, Wisconsin, inventor of the “pickle in a pouch,” created its first spicy pickle 50 years ago, and demand for the product continues today. “Hot is interesting, and everyone has a different opinion,” said Steve Byrnes, president, Van Holten’s. “We test our pickles on the Scoville scale, and they come in at jalapeño hot. We also use products from the Tapatío hot sauce company in one of our pickles, which has more of a chili and garlic flavor. Both products are on-the-go snack items.”
Byrnes noted a current fad among daring spice fans:“They take our hot pickles, Hot Cheetos and a product called chamoy—a fruit-flavored item—and make a sundae that has a sour, hot kick to it,” he said. “It’s big in the Southwest.”
Commercially bottled cayenne sauce is nothing new. The nation’s first bottled sauce was introduced in Massachusetts in 1807. In October 2021, Irving, Texas-based 7-Eleven continued the trend, rolling out its own proprietary 11-Pepper Sauce made from 11 varieties of peppers: ghost pepper, habanero, chili powder, black pepper, white pepper, chipotle, jalapeño, ancho, pasilla, guajillo and red pepper.
The LTO sauce was part of the chain’s One Slice Challenge that encouraged shoppers to eat one slice of any 7-Eleven pizza topped with the sizzling sauce, along with a two-ounce bag of Paqui Haunted Ghost Pepper chips from Amplify Snack Brands Inc. and a can of Liquid Death Mountain Water. Participants who posted on social media photographic evidence of their reactions to the challenge were eligible for a prize.
Texas-based TXB Stores offers proprietary Scorpion Red Salsa to customers desiring extra fire in their breakfast and lunch tacos. “We also offer it packaged in the stores for at-home consumption,” said Benjamin Hoffmeyer, vice president, marketing and merchandising, TXB. “It’s important to offer various heat levels to meet customers’ evolving taste buds. The farther south you go, heat levels tend to elevate higher than in our northern markets.”
The TXB foodservice menu includes Spicy Chicken Tenders and TXB Jalapeño Poppers, which have “just the right spice level and seasoning to satisfy any spicy craving, and that helps us sell more TXB fountain and package beverage drinks,” he said.
“We also offer a variety of Hispanic products with a spicy flavor profile, including chamoy pickles, pork skins, jerky, chips, candy and beer salt,” he added. “In 2022, we’ll introduce private-label spicy peanuts and seeds with chili and jalapeño flavors.”
The Mid-Atlantic area is famous for Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine featuring dishes made with potatoes and cabbage. But even York, Pennsylvania-based Rutter’s stores have spiced up offerings to satisfy customer cravings. “We continue to see demand for spice options in our stores, and we’re certainly tapping into it,” said Chad White, manager, foodservice category, Rutter’s. “We recently added Buffalo chicken roller bites that have a touch of heat, and that’s done very well. Other items we offer are our Boom sauce, which is a popular sauce option, and Rajun Cajun sausage.”
70% of restaurant menus have spicy items listed.
When it comes to packaged products, “anything with flaming hot, ghost pepper or other ‘super spicy’ branding is in demand,” White said. The chain has enjoyed impressive sales from Takis, a rolled corn tortilla chip produced by Barcel USA of Coppell, Texas, and Paqui, a gluten-free chip made from non-GMO corn. Both brands are available in assorted flavors.
Casey’s in January introduced three spicy snacks in collaboration with fellow Des Moines, Iowa-based company Lola’s Fine Hot Sauce. The crunchy snacks include Casey’s Zesty Jalapeño Peanuts, Casey’s Zesty Jalapeño Cashews and Casey’s Zesty Jalapeño Pretzels. “Our generational family recipe hot sauce has the perfect flavor with just the right amount of heat that Casey’s guests are looking for and is the perfect partnership,” said Taufeek Shah, founder and CEO of Lola’s Fine Hot Sauce.
Even the roller grill is getting spicy. Recently, 7-Eleven launched the Spicy Garlic Chicken Roller, an LTO of chicken with a Swiss cheese blend breaded in a zesty coating. “We love coming up with new takes on popular treats that will continue to excite and delight our customers,” said Alexis Luewellyn, senior manager of fresh food, 7-Eleven.
Don’t expect consumers to extinguish spicy food sales any time soon. “The demand for spicy flavor will continue to grow,” said Patterson. “Heat is everywhere, from grocery store shelves to upscale dining establishments, and eating spicy for fun, delight and dares are now social pastimes. I expect menus and products to continue to raise the bar with creative pairings of heat in applications like cocktails, baked goods, marinades and more.”