The adventurous natures of millennials and foodies of all ages are contributing to the demand for more spicy foods, as are consumers who want foods lower in sodium, fat and sugars without losing flavor. Spices and seasonings can add sizzle to a product — think Flamin' Hot Cheetos — or "they can add sophistication and nuance and bolster the flavor profile in a reformulation aimed at a more natural, healthful or clean-label product," according to Food Processing.
Spicy, and clean?
Because peppers and spices have so much flavor, the need to add artificial flavors to "hot" products is less, according to both Julie Busha, CEO of The Busha Group, which makes Slawsa, a cabbage based-relish, and Lee Greene, founder of Scrumptious Pantry, which makes a line of condiments, including hot sauces.
Greene does point out that a common practice is to use xanthan gum as a filler in hot sauces to make them thicker. She notes the way to increase thickness without xanthan gum is to add more pepper solids (roasted, mashed and fermented peppers). That, of course, costs more and raises the price of the product.
Artificial ingredients may not be the biggest challenge. "I think the bigger challenge is to make foods that have great flavors without adding a bunch of ingredients," says Greene. "For example, spicy BBQ sauce usually has a lot of sugar to add a sweet sensation as a contrast to the spice."
Greene points out not all consumers care about the clean label, as witnessed by the popularity of sriracha, which contains artificial ingredients. She also believes that the consumer who is looking for a cleaner label is also looking for a flavor experience, not just a hot sensation.
"A hot pepper is very delicate to work with to bring out the flavors of the pepper as opposed to only feel the heat," Greene says. "The general approach in the past was to focus on the heat and then balance it with sweet and acid. With consumers looking closer at labels, the trend is to focus more on the layers of flavor of the hot pepper and bring those out — heat is just one of the elements that make the flavor experience of the pepper."
Not too spicy
Although a small segment of the population wants really hot, Busha believes the big challenge for food manufacturers is finding the right balance of spicy for mainstream consumers.
"As a food manufacturer, it is a balancing act to ensure that your combination doesn't overpower the consumer and the spice complements and brings more depth to your flavors," she says.
Busha further explains, "Different peppers have heat qualities that not only make an impact on the taster in terms of what type of flavor and the amount of heat that is given, but also, 'when' it is given. Certain spices may not be prevalent initially but will linger longer at the end (a delayed heat). Other peppers will have a distinct flavor over others."
Greene points out that food companies need suppliers who understand all peppers aren't the same and can vary depending on the source of the crop. Maintaining quality control in the supply chain is important to producing a consistent product.