Spicy flavors moving beyond heat

by Erica Shaffer
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Bold flavor profiles with a touch of heat continue to find a place on consumers’ tables. But food manufacturers will be challenged to create products that bring more than heat to the tongue and tears to the eyes.

Spicy flavor profiles are moving beyond Mexican and Asian influences, a likely sign that foodie culture has swayed some consumers, who are now looking for more complex and layered flavors in addition to heat. Layered flavors increasingly are in demand with consumers who are becoming savvier about what they’re eating, according to Wild Flavors Inc., Erlanger, Ky.

ConAgra Foods, Omaha, seized upon this wave and introduced its new Slim Jim DARE products, a line of spicy meat snacks.

“DARE presents a challenge to consumers with contemporary and complex flavors,” said Daniel Marple, brand director, ConAgra Foods. “It really is a whole new platform for us — spicier flavors, spicier names and even spicier packaging.”

The spiciness and heat increases from Kinda Hot Chili Pepper to Freakin’ Hot Jalapeño, with the Really Freakin’ Hot Habanero being the hottest.

Big spice profiles, global influences and American regional flavors are prominent trends for the summer grilling season, according to the Grilling Edition of McCormick & Co. Inc.’s Flavor Forecast. Peppers — cayenne, ancho and smoky chipotle — will be a significant source of heat in addition to the flame from the grill pit, McCormick said.

Spicy flavors aren’t limited to proteins. Reno, Nev.-based Davidson’s Teas offers Spicy Green, which is among six varieties of herbal tea the company offers. The 100% organic tea is a blend of cinammon, cloves and Tulsi, which is a type of basil plant that is homegrown primarily in South Asia.

“The whole purpose of us blending Tulsi Spicy Green is to have customers enjoy and taste Tulsi as the predominant flavor profile, but at the same time enjoy the health benefits that come with the combination of Tulsi and green tea,” said Kunall Patel, director of sales and strategy for Davidson’s. “The cinnamon and cloves were added to enhance the flavor profile to give it some spiciness to the palate as opposed to just making it Tulsi and green tea.”

Licorice and ginger also are blended in other Davidson’s Tea products to provide consumers a variety of flavor profiles.

Wixon, a seasoning, flavor and ingredient manufacturer out of St. Francis, Wis., introduced a curry mustard salad dressing seasoning. The blend layers in a hint of sweetness and features turmeric and other spices.

Given the variety and range of spicy foods available today, consumers’ desire for more adventure in their dining experience stems from previous exposure to flavor and heat profiles. Regular exposure to pungent foods desensitizes the nerves on the periphery of the mouth so that they don’t send as big a signal to the central nervous system, said Bruce Bryant, a senior research associate at the Philadelphia-based Monell Center, which specializes in research in the chemical senses. Also, the burning sensation of foods tends to dull as people age. Baby boomers especially are affected by diminishing taste buds and are looking for out-of-the-ordinary flavors to keep meals interesting, according Wild Flavors.

“People actually report that a certain concentration of capsaicin given to an older person doesn’t register as intense (as it would) to a younger or middle-age person,” Dr. Bryant said. “But the sad thing is that with older people their sense of smell and taste goes down faster. So when they have a moderately spicy meal or they drink a carbonated beverage, the irritation aspect becomes more salient. What used to be a nice sweet tingling drink is now mostly bite and prickle.”

Despite the rising popularity of other savory flavors such as smoked bacon, consumers continue to enjoy spicy flavors, from the sting of jalapeños to the gentle warmth of cinammon and ginger. There could be more at work than just great-tasting food.

“We’re learning it may become an aspect of pleasure to it,” Dr. Bryant said. “There are no mammals that we know of that willingly will eat capsaicin. In fact, rats can’t even be trained with a good reward to eat capsaicin. They’re paying attention to the part of the nervous system, which is there simply to signal danger. It signals that there is actually something wrong or something potentially harmful going on in the mouth of the animal.”

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