CHICAGO — Consumer fascination with hot and spicy foods is bringing a fiery kick to dairy departments. While the concept of heat ingredients being added to cheese and sour cream is not new — think jalapeño Monterey jack and bacon horseradish chip dip — additions to ice cream, yogurt and flavored milk remain unconventional, representing an opportunity for innovation.

“Heat tends to have a sort of ‘daredevil’ appeal that makes people want to try it,” said Kayla Blanding, applications technologist, Synergy Flavors, Wauconda, Ill. “Heat sensation puts a spin on an otherwise common flavor and makes tasting the product more of an experience.”

Hot and spicy flavors, in combination with some sweetness, are trending across all food and beverage categories. There is chipotle mango chicken, habanero sun-dried tomato ketchup and cayenne orange kombucha. The more exotic, the more inviting the sweet-heat combination.

“Consumers want to experience the bold taste different peppers offer, but without the overwhelming heat that, for some, compromises enjoyment,” said Philip Caputo, marketing and consumer insights manager, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y. “The pairing of a sweet or creamy flavor — such as mango or honey — helps makes spicy flavors more palatable and enjoyable for adventurous consumers.”

Jill Puckett, market development specialist, Kalsec, Kalamazoo, Mich., said, “Spicy yogurts are common in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, while hot cheeses are popular in Central and South America. These traditional dishes often influence young chefs and consumers to look beyond yogurt and cheese, explaining why we are starting to see spice show up in ice cream and milk drinks.”

Dairy foods are an ideal delivery vehicle for sweet-heat flavor combinations. Milk is inherently sweet due to its lactose content, and its creamy nature complements all types of sweet flavors. The creaminess comes from milkfat, which is recognized for its ability to mellow the sensation of heat derived from capsaicin, the odorless, tasteless, crystalline chemical compound found in most peppers.

When consumed, capsaicin stimulates nerve endings in the mouth, triggering production of neurotransmitters that signal the brain that the body is in pain. It is the feeling of being on fire. Because capsaicin is nearly insoluble in water, drinking a glass of water after consuming chili peppers does not reduce the pain. On the other hand, capsaicin is soluble in fat, which is why dairy serves as a functional carrier for peppers. It subdues the heat so the other flavors may be experienced.

Another form of heat in food comes from allyl isothiocyanate, a colorless compound found in mustard, horseradish and wasabi. It functions differently than capsaicin. Rather than exciting nerves in the mouth, it produces vapors that stimulate nasal passages. Because allyl isothiocyanate is not oil-based, the burning may easily be cleansed by consuming more of any food or liquid.

While mustard, horseradish and wasabi may be used in dairy products, it’s the power that milkfat has over capsaicin that makes chili peppers an intriguing ingredient in the category.

“One of the defining characteristics of dairy is it has the unique ability to coat the mouth and permit the taste experience to envelop a prolonged period of time,” said Judson McLester, executive chef and ingredient sales manager, McIlhenny Co., Avery Island, La. “This is the rationale for why the combination of sweet and spicy flavors works so well in dairy products. When there is a longer sensation of taste, there is an opportunity for that flavor to become multi-dimensional. Dairy products often delay the original sensations of individual flavor attributes, which in turn provides a complex tasting experience.”

Patrick McKinney, culinary council member, LifeSpice, Chicago, said, “Take for instance Mayan chocolate ice cream. The sweet chocolate ice cream hits your tongue first to give you that familiar chocolate ice cream flavor and then as the cream starts to uncoat your tongue, you get this surprise hit of heat from the chilies. The added surprise and the saliva that is generated to clear the mouth makes one look forward to the next bite.”

Dairy ingredients

Understanding the flavor of peppers

The pungency of a chili pepper — its concentration of capsaicin — is measured by high-performance liquid chromatograph and is reported in Scoville Heat Units (S.H.U.). Pure capsaicin tops out the Scoville scale at 16,000,000 S.H.U. To compare, bell peppers lack capsaicin and score zero S.H.U.

Chili peppers also have flavor, which sometimes gets lost in the heat. Ancho peppers, also known as poblanos, are 1,000 to 2,000 S.H.U. They possess a dark cherry and raisin sweetness. Chipotles range from 2,500 to 10,000 S.H.U and are made by smoking and drying jalapeños; thereby, creating a woodsy, smoky flavor. Guajillos are dried mirasol chilies, which are only about 2,500 to 5,000 S.H.U. They boast a moderately spicy, tangy flavor with a touch of citrus. Pasillas are milder, at 1,000 to 2,500 S.H.U. Their complex flavor starts like prune and finishes with a hint of licorice.

There are several varieties of habanero peppers, ranging from little to no heat to fiery hot (500,000-plus S.H.U.), which makes them popular, as they may be blended together or with other ingredients to develop unique flavor profiles. In general, habaneros possess a fruity, citrusy flavor, which is why they often are paired with fruits, with mango being the most common.

At 800,000 to 1,000,000-plus S.H.U., the Bhut Jolokia pepper, also known as ghost pepper, was once recognized as the hottest chili pepper; however, now the Carolina Reaper, which may be as hot as 2,200,000 S.H.U., holds the title. With such hot peppers, the human palate often only experiences the heat. This is where milkfat helps. It mellows the heat so the flavors may be tasted, with many of the flavors complementing sweet flavors ranging from botanicals to fruits to confections.

Hot Scream spicy ice cream

Innovation opportunities

Sweet and heat flavors may be used in all types of dairy foods. With consumers increasingly exposed to global cuisines, they are more willing to explore unique flavor combinations, especially in condiments, making dips and spreads an attractive sweet-heat vehicle.

“Raspberry pairs well with chipotle in cream cheese,” said Kristie Hung, marketing specialist, Sensient Natural Ingredients, Turlock, Calif. “The hint of heat and smokiness from the peppers adds depth and a savory layer to this sweet-heat combination. Hatch chili lime butter delivers a crisp, bright savory flavor and strong front-end heat.”

Chris Hughes, corporate chef, Parker Products, Fort Worth, Texas, said, “Serrano glazed granola serves as a tangy topper for mango yogurt or top a blueberry parfait with chipotle-dusted almonds.”

There are many approaches to introducing heat into dairy products.

“Most spicy ingredients may be added in a dehydrated and powdered form into dairy-based sauces, dips and spreads,” said Mihir Vasavada, senior research and development manager for capsicums and spices, Olam International, Fresno, Calif. “Alternately, you can blend the dehydrated form of spice with dairy powders to use as coatings. In ice creams and liquid dairy applications, use capsicum extracts so that they dissolve completely. Alternately, you may infuse pepper powders into liquid dairy and then strain out particulates.”

When blended into a dairy base, such as spreadable cheese or sour cream, it’s important that there’s even distribution in order to avoid hot spots. With other products, such as ice cream, a hot spot may be part of the eating experience.

“Just imagine if you had a raspberry cobbler ice cream,” said Smokey Waters, director of culinary innovation, Pecan Deluxe Candy Co., Dallas. “The addition of chipotle to the raspberry ribbon gives you a sweet-heat option by only adding one ingredient to a current recipe. The intention of adding heat to a dairy item should be to add flavor complexity without blowing out the taste buds. The occasion should be enjoyable and not leave you with sweat on your brow.”

Ice cream is uniquely poised to get peppered, as not only does the high milkfat content mellow the heat, there’s also a frozen cooling sensation, said Jenna Schowalter, sweet applications manager, Bell Flavors and Fragrances Inc., Northbrook, Ill.

This synergy has not escaped the attention of Escape Brands, New York, which offers Hot Scream, vanilla ice cream swirled with a spicy chocolate, ginger or strawberry variegate.

“Heat may also be added indirectly through the use of inclusions, compound coatings or infused fruits,” said Mario Jez, junior flavorist, Edlong, Elk Grove Village, Ill.

Caitlin Glaser, food scientist, Balchem Ingredient Solutions, St. Louis, said, “Inclusions are a great way to add spice through liquid chips, low-melt flakes or coated bakery and nuts. We can add heat, control the spice level and change the types of spice used depending on the application.”

Infusing fruit pieces or spicing fruit preps ensures that the sweet and heat are tasted at the same time, said Anni Li, product developer, Tree Top Inc., Selah, Wash.

“Blackberry serrano and strawberry jalapeño fruit preps provide just the right amount of kick to yogurt,” she said. “The fruit’s sweetness really helps the heat to be palatable but also allows consumers to taste the flavor of the chilies, rather than just the burning.”