KANSAS CITY, MO. — Piquant, zesty or “with some kick” are descriptors often associated with spicy foods. Most people think heat — as measured by the Scoville scale — when they think about spicy. But there’s also spiciness associated with cinnamon, ginger and horseradish, as well as arugula and truffles.

All of these flavors are taking center stage in different types of food and beverage applications as consumers seek new ways to spice up their lives.

“With traveling restrictions during the pandemic on one side and increased access to media that features foods popular in other countries on the other, consumers have developed a strong desire to experience adventure through their taste buds,” said Robert Murphy, chef and culinary development specialist, ILLES Foods, Carrollton, Texas. “As people explore more global cuisines, spicy becomes more comfortable, especially when paired with something they are already familiar with.”

Kimberly Mikaliunas, national account manager, Parker Food Group, Fort Worth, Texas, said, “Curries are the perfect example of blending spices to make a unique flavor experience. There’s a world of curry options — cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, black pepper, etc. — that can be combined to create complex flavors and culinary adventures.”

“Add a Baltic spice blend to brownies or ras al hanout — a complex, aromatic spice blend associated with Moroccan cuisine — in a yogurt coating for pretzels,” Mikaliunas said. “Then crush those pretzels and add them to ice cream.”


Adventures in eating out

The market researcher Datassential, Chicago, said demand for spicy foods has grown in the foodservice segment, where 71% of menus and 11% of drink menus feature the word “spicy.” In fact, during the first half of 2023, there were 270 spicy limited-time offerings introduced by major foodservice chains.

Tajin — the dried seasoning blend of chilis, salt and lime — has grown the most over the past four years across all foodservice categories, according to Datassential. It’s also gaining traction in retail. Century Snacks, Commerce, Calif., for example, now offers Snak Club Tajin Gummy Bears. The gummies come in apple, lemon, orange, pineapple and strawberry flavors that are all sprinkled with Tajin seasoning.

Nashville hot, spicy margarita and mango habanero flavors also saw triple-digit increases during the same period, according to Datassential. Popular pepper ingredient additions include pickled jalapeños, ghost peppers, habanero peppers and Calabrian chili peppers.

“There are endless ways to incorporate peppery flavors with ethnic dishes,” said Rachael Jarzembowski, marketing manager, Wixon, St. Francis, Wis. “The most successful products tend to be ones that combine familiar with the unusual. This makes new products more approachable and appeals to a broader range of consumers rather than only more adventurous diners.”

Promoting the pepper type helps brands create a point of differentiation. MegaMex Foods, Orange, Calif., for example, is rolling out its Herdez Habanero Hot Sauce, which features the distinctive flavor of the namesake pepper. While it may be used to complement Mexican foods, its bold kick works with many cuisines, ranging from lasagna to ramen noodles.

Sometimes the other ingredients are the star of the hot sauce. Chilli No. 5, a United Kingdom-based hot sauce company, has rolled out its annual 50-bottle batch of white truffle hot sauce. The truffles are blended with a mix of fresh mushrooms, keeping the truffle flavor tame but present. When consumed, there’s a late and subtle arrival of chili heat to round it all off.


Spicy is more than heat

Chilies get their heat from capsicum, a crystalline chemical compound that stimulates nerve endings in the mouth and skin. Other forms of “heat” include allyl isothiocyanate, a compound found in mustard, horseradish and wasabi, and gingerol, the aromatic in ginger root. The latter two are not real heat, as they do not contain capsicum, the compound scientifically measured as heat by the Scoville scale. Rather, the spicy compounds are referred to as pungent and deliver kick without stimulating nerves.

“Think of a spicy gingerbread or ginger snap,” Mikaliunas said. “The ginger can be manipulated to achieve many different flavor profiles, from warm to sharp. Adding ginger to formulas can add that unique interest and spicy experience that consumers are craving.”

Whitney Beem, marketing and insights director at Parker Food Group, added, “Spices like cinnamon and horseradish can be used creatively in formulating global spicy foods. For example, cinnamon can enhance the sweet and spicy notes in Middle Eastern cuisine, while horseradish can add a pungent kick to European dishes.”

Ryan Kukuruzovic, corporate chef at Wixon, said, “Cinnamon works well in North African savory dishes, like tagines, stews and rice pilafs. It is often paired with other spices, like cumin and coriander, to create complex flavors.”

The fusion of spicy with global cuisines is becoming more common, and those dishes may be served at breakfast, lunch or dinner, or during one of the many mini-meals consumers use to refuel throughout the day.

“We expect breakfast occasions to continue to grow with this daypart using the most innovation with spicy flavors,” Murphy said. “Flavors like spicy honey, jalapeño molasses and hot maple all pair so well with breakfast sandwiches. Think biscuits with crispy chicken and spicy honey, or hot maple with a bacon, egg and cheese sandwiched between pancakes.”

Kukuruzovic agreed breakfast innovation is booming. “This trend is due to consumers seeking bolder and more flavorful options to kickstart their day, as well as the growing popularity of ethnic foods that incorporate heat and spice, such as Mexican or Asian-inspired breakfast dishes.”

Dairy products — butter, cheese, ice cream and even yogurt, as well as condiments made with dairy fat — are ideal carriers for chilies. That’s because the capsicum in the chilies is soluble in fat, so it is more easily dispersed in a fat-based system, preventing a fiery strike with linger.

“Dairy fats help counteract the heat of spicy compounds,” Beem said. “While still relatively in early stages of adoption, spicy flavors in ice cream are driving interest in restaurants. What about a jalapeño-lime swirl in a cream cheese spread or a spiced honey nut yogurt parfait using hot honey glazed pecans? A habanero-infused butter makes a great fiery seafood topping.”

Beth Slaughter, applications technologist, Sensient, Hoffman Estates, Ill., said, “We are seeing spicy in non-traditional categories, such as beverage, ice cream and bakery. It’s not about delivering just on heat level, but it’s about developing layers of flavor.”

Slaughter said condiments are one of the most consumer-friendly ways to add spice to foods, often with a traditional condiment serving as the base. Some concepts she has worked on include kimchi teriyaki sauce, chili crunch mustard, peri peri ranch and green curry ketchup.

These are the condiments many quick-service chains are turning to in what seems to be the never-ending spicy chicken sandwich war. It’s happening with burgers, too.

Smashburger now offers The Scorchin’ Hot Mac & Cheese Burger. And White Castle is taking spicy to the opposite side of the globe with its new Asian-inspired spicy burger. The Maruchan ramen slider is the chain’s cheese slider topped with beef-flavored ramen, sliced green onions, hard-boiled egg and sriracha.

“Consumers have a keen interest in experiencing different cultures through cuisine,” said Doug Resh, director of commercial marketing, T. Hasegawa USA, Cerritos, Calif. “While Latin flavors remain a safe space for innovation, there is a lot of opportunity to create new cravings using classic ingredients and flavor profiles from all over the world.

“Diverse variety in regional Asian cuisines tick many boxes that align with mainstream palates but perhaps none more impactful than robust, hot and spicy flavors. Some of the most impactful flavors — think sriracha, gochujang and chili crisp — have Asian roots. Millennials are the most engaged with peppers from both Asian and Latin cuisines, like guajillo peppers and Thai chili, among others, demonstrating that their adventurous palates still seek out heat.”

Holly Adrian, senior marketing manager, Sensient, Turlock, Calif., said, “Our culinary team works with a variety of specialty chilies and recognizes the unique flavor notes of each cultivar. Ancho chilies, for example, have a mild fruity flavor with undertones of plum, raisin and tobacco with a slight earthy bitterness. Sprinkling bacon bits, ancho chili powder and chocolate chips makes a delicious chocolate cookie stir-in or ice cream variegate.

“Each cultivar is unique in its flavor components and heat impact. We developed a version of spicy bacon jam incorporating a Peruvian aji Amarillo and mango puree for a spreadable cheese.”

Kukuruzovic uses ghost pepper to make sambal, an Indonesian sauce that also contains garlic, ginger, shallots and lime juice. Other Asian condiment concepts from him include Thai chili calamansi lime, purple basil ginger teriyaki and smoked cherry Szechuan. He has even added a layer of flavor to hot honey by infusing it with vanilla.

These types of condiments may be used to add spicy layers or swirls into foods. For example, peppered candied ginger flakes may be incorporated into a spreadable cheese.

Cedar’s Mediterranean Foods Inc., Ward Hill, Mass., for example, is rolling out Sizzling Scallion Labne Dip. The labne has the flavor of a sour cream onion dip. The kick comes from the tangy blend of scallions and spicy red pepper flakes swirled throughout.

Other concepts that may work in such a spread or dip include strawberry black pepper, brown sugar sriracha, pineapple gochujang and Caribbean citrus habanero, Kukuruzovic said.

The flavors of the Caribbean are being layered with heat in all types of new dishes being served on Holland America Line’s cruises going to the region’s islands. New menu items include shrimp cocktail with orange habanero aioli, mahi mahi diablo with cilantro rice and guajillo chilies, and sweet potato chowder with chili peppers.

Molly Shea, customer experience marketing, IFF, South Brunswick, NJ, said, “Such global spicy fusions enable consumers to dip their toes into taste testing the unfamiliar.”

It includes innovations in the dessert space, an area where sweet is dominant. But as many have learned with hot honey, sweet and heat often go together.

“As taste trends go, they don’t get much hotter than the sweet heat of hot honey,” Adrian said. “The sticky, gooey sauce, thought to have started in Brazil by infusing honey with hot chilies, is being drizzled on everything from pizza to crispy, comforting chicken sandwiches.”

Banana ice cream with a Peruvian chili-infused hot honey swirl is an example that illustrates the trend. Marketers should tell the story of the chili on product packaging.

“By using Peruvian chilies, we are returning the food fad to its South American roots,” Adrian said. “But it’s also important to note that Peruvian aji Amarillo, with its passionfruit and mango undertones, plus its umber hue and sultry medium heat, create the perfect pairing with cool and creamy ice cream with a tropical banana flavor.”

It’s all about pairing the right chili varietal with the right dessert to create a multi-sensorial eating experience. With more consumers trying to limit their added sugar intake, even at dessert time, the addition of spicy heat helps compensate.

Adrian and her team have developed some sweet-heat concepts. The cocoa ancho blend was inspired by Mexican hot chocolate. It’s ancho chilis blended with smoked paprika, cinnamon, cocoa powder and a touch of sugar.

“It adds a delectable, smoky, sweetness with an unexpected kick of heat to baked goods, beverages, nuts, energy bars and drizzle sauces,” Adrian said.