The spicy flavor trend is transitioning from straight-forward heat to sophisticated layers of flavor. The trend has gained momentum as consumers become more familiar with a variety of ethnic cuisines and are willing to reach beyond products that feature traditional flavors and experiment.

“Basically, it used to be all about heat,” said Barbara Zatto, director of culinary for Mizkan Americas, Mount Prospect, Ill. “We were trying to see how spicy can we get things. That was 10 years ago, maybe 15 years ago, when we were looking for the hottest pepper. Then came the blackened phase, the jerk phase. That’s when people started to realize heat and spice don’t have to mean the same thing.”

Every six months Kalsec, Inc., Kalamazoo, Mich., publishes its HeatSync Index, which, in collaboration with Mintel International’s Global New Products Database, tracks the usage of more than 30 different peppers in the United States and Europe. In the first six months of 2013, the U.S. and European indexes both posted strong increases, according to the company, with the U.S. index up 38% and the European Union index climbing 26% over the previous six months.

Jalapeno and cayenne peppers led the increase in the U.S. index followed by banana and pepperoncini peppers. Sweet chili, piquillo and cayenne peppers were the sources of heat that propelled the E.U. index higher.

“The HeatSync index was developed with an eye on linking our knowledge with the consumer’s desire for hot and spicy foods,” said Gary Augustine, executive director of market development for Kalsec. “We’ve seen the trend building over time; we’ve seen consumers become more daring in their food choices and we thought it would be a good idea to tie it back to food processors.”

The spicy flavor trend has gotten the attention of food processors and food service operators. A variety of products, particularly in the snack category, feature different levels and heat, and many quick-service restaurants have launched menu items with a kick.

“There is a fascinating demographic, young males between the ages of 20 and 30, who have taken to hot and spicy products,” said Craig “Skip” Julius, manager of culinary services for Sensient Flavors, Hoffman States, Ill. “And people have noticed. It has started slow, Wendy’s may have been the first to launch a spicy chicken sandwich, but others have jumped on board. Chicken is the vehicle and even McDonald’s new wing products are spicy. It’s a sign of a much greater awareness around the trend.”

Mr. Augustine concurred, noting that McDonald’s has even introduced a habanero sauce as a condiment.

“That’s when you know its mainstream,” he said.

Trending toward the mainstream

Identifying what sources of heat may emerge in the mainstream next is a challenge. Consumers in the United States have access to a broad array of ethnic cuisines, and what captures their attention as well as the attention of food and beverage product developers is a process of timing and luck.

“Pepper popularity may start out within an ethnic trend, but ultimately crosses over into mainstream food culture,” said Jill McKeague, market development manager for Kalsec. “Often what we see is that a pepper that is considered an everyday flavor within an ethnic food category will start to emerge in other cuisines.

“For instance, a consumer poll done by Technomic in 2011 showed that chipotle was considered an ‘everyday’ flavor for Mexican entrees and an ‘opportunity’ flavor for pork and chicken entrees. As the consumer becomes more familiar with a flavor, it will often transcend its ethnic start. The current Peruvian trend is most likely drawing attention to the aji amarillo pepper. As familiarity with this flavor increases, one would expect the aji amarillo to show up in everyday cuisine.

“Sriracha is a great example of this idea. It started on the West coast solely in Asian restaurants. Now it is found everywhere. Sriracha also emphasizes the consumer’s desire for greater complexity. Unlike other hot sauces it offers more than just heat – it has depth of flavor as well.”

Ms. Zatto said, “Sriracha is pretty much heat with vinegar and salt, and that is the new big thing. Next one coming is the gochujang. That is a good example of an up and coming heat and it has a lot of disciplines going on in it.”

Gochujang is a fermented condiment made from red chili powder, rice, fermented soybeans and salt that is popular in Korea. It is commonly used in a variety of applications ranging from marinated meats to salads, soups and stews.

“Sriracha is everywhere today,” Mr. Julius said. “The trend is really interesting. For a long time it was Mexican-based chilies – anchos, chipotle, serranos … but now, in the last couple of years, it has really exploded.

“We are seeing different sources of heat pop up all over the country. Sometimes it is putting a bottle of Sriracha on the table. Or it may be mixed in with mayonnaise.”

Noting that product developers will not be leaving “Southeast Asia any time soon,” Ms. Zatto highlighted several other sources of heat that may be up and coming. Two she identified include Moroccan and Indian.

“Moroccan spice blends are really cool,” she said. “They feature paprika, cinnamon, lemons, garlic and different herbs such as oregano that create interesting flavors.

“With Indian, I see a lot of people blending spices like ginger and fresh curry that people are making with a mortar and pestle, trying to get flavors to emerge by grinding the ginger and curry leaves. With Indian cuisine there is a lot that may be done with vegetarian dishes.”

Innovating beyond heat

Mr. Julius said that as product developers have moved beyond focusing on chilies that they have entered a period of experimentation.

“You’re starting to see things that have a lot more depth, because they are mixed with different ingredients,” he said.

Sugar, for example, may be used to even the heat of a product, Mr. Julius said. It is a technique used in some Korean dishes.

“Spice comes from different kinds of chilies and peppers,” Ms. Zatto said. “You get a grassy vegetable heat, from green chilies or some may have a fruity kind of heat, like habanero or some of the other red chilies. Then people started to take a look at and ask how do we build complete flavors?”

Ms. Zatto described how she may add complexity to heat and it starts by combining different types of chilies.

“Some chilies are dried and they will bring out more earthy notes and have a bitter chocolate taste,” she said. “You can make a mole and then toast seeds and nuts to get different notes.

“It is like a salsa with green chilies; it’s very mild, but it does give it a little bit of depth of flavor. I might also add some tomatillo and then some sriracha and give it another depth of flavor.”

Mr. Augustine said slight changes to a formulation may make the difference between a common flavor and one that is unique.

“We are beyond the heat itself,” he said. “Now we are talking about combinations that add a fruity or citrus note in combination with the spicy flavor itself. Little elements like adding some sweetness or earthiness can make a flavor unique. Today, that is what it takes to make a spicy product stand out.”