KANSAS CITY — A funny thing happened as product developers went in search of the next trendy, spicy pepper. Many rediscovered the positive attributes that propelled jalapeños forward years ago and have been adding the peppers to a spate of new products and menu items.
A cheddar jalapeño variety of Lay’s potato chips was one of several new flavors introduced by PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, NY, earlier this year. The Kraft Heinz Co., Pittsburgh, is introducing a jalapeño cheddar variety in its new flavors of Planters Cheez Balls later this year.
This past March, Buffalo Wild Wings, a business unit of Inspire Brands, Inc., Atlanta, added Dirty Dubs Tots to its menu. The new item features a layer of crispy tater tots covered in brisket, onions, cotija cheese, green onions, pickled jalapeños, Fresno peppers, queso, honey barbecue sauce and Adobo sauce.
Not to be outdone, Burger King, a business unit of Restaurant Brands International, Toronto, introduced its jalapeño cheddar bites in early April. The snack consists of jalapeño pieces, cheddar cheese and a crispy breading that is served with a ranch sauce for dipping.
“Since it is a staple in Mexican cuisine, we’d argue that jalapeño never really left,” said Gary Augustine, director of marketing for Van Drunen Farms, Momence, Ill. “According to Mintel, 71% of consumers have tried jalapeño in a dip or sauce, more than any other spicy flavor. Why is jalapeño still hot? The demand for global ingredients continues to rise, and jalapeño flavors — inspired by Central and South American dishes — are a consumer favorite.
“Younger consumers are especially interested in exotic sweet-spicy combinations, featuring jalapeños. Jalapeños offer a moderate heat level, a rich flavor profile and a delectable crunch. The future of jalapeño in food will also be influenced by the consumer need for an experience. As Mintel points out, ‘narrowing in on specific flavor profiles like jalapeño … will cast a wide net.’”
Anna Cheely, senior scientist with Kalsec, Inc., Kalamazoo, Mich., echoed Mr. Augustine and said jalapeños are a common ingredient familiar to many consumers. Speaking to the recent new product introductions she noted many include cheese or cheese flavor.
“Think about the traditional nacho cheese, pickled jalapeños and tortilla chips from your school or skating rink concession stand,” she said. “It’s such a comfortable flavor combination already, but now they are very much focusing on the power of the jalapeño. It also can be seen as a comfort item to many of the targeted consumer base.”
Ms. Cheely added that other trends also may be influencing the accelerated use of jalapeños in new products.
“I believe that the increase of jalapeño-flavored foods speaks to consumers wanting more of the actual pepper and pepper flavor,” Ms. Cheely said. “For example, pickled jalapeño, while not a new product, does speak to the pickled/fermented trend while using a flavor that many consumers are likely already familiar with. The sour from the vinegar brightens the dish up and gives it depth overall.”
Dave Darling, the director of food ingredient sales for Mizkan America, Inc., Mount Prospect, Ill., said manufacturers favor jalapeños because they are available year-round and are versatile.
“If a manufacturer is innovating, jalapeños are an extremely flexible ingredient,” he said. “For a food manufacturer with a product line, adding jalapeños can easily create a new product for dairy, meat, dip, beverage, snack or cheese applications.”
The versatility of product development around jalapeños may be seen in Shenandoah Growers, Inc.’s jalapeño pepper stir-in puree. The Rockingham, Va.-based company said it may be used to add heat to fresh salsa, guacamole, mixed with mayonnaise or ranch dressing to create a spicy spread, or added to a marinade.
When Cleveland Kitchen, Cleveland, introduced a line of dressings and marinades this past April, the company included its Gnarly Miso Jalapeño variety. The product is formulated with fermented cabbage, green peppers, jalapeño and miso.
“The availability of jalapeños allows for large national accounts to create menus across the country with flavor continuity,” said Juliet Greene, corporate chef for Mizkan America. “Other peppers are popular as well, including ghost peppers and scorpion peppers, but they tend to be more niche and not as readily available.”
Dax Schaefer, executive chef for Asenzya, Oak Creek, Wis., called jalapeños a “comfort pepper.”
“Consumers like it, grew up with it and know what to expect,” he said. “With jalapeños being very flavorful, yet mild enough that you don’t lose the flavor of the entire dish, they have become a very popular choice to add a touch of heat. They also gain instant ingredient recognition with a strong purchase intent. They are still many chefs’ ‘go to’ pepper.”
Citing data from Mintel, Chicago, Mr. Schaefer said jalapeños have enjoyed an 84% growth in spicy spreads between 2016 and 2019.
A variety for every occasion
An added attribute that makes jalapeños an attractive ingredient option is how the peppers are produced.
“On an agricultural basis, growers can adjust jalapeños to specific applications,” Mr. Darling said. “For example, there is a variety of jalapeño called ‘unique’ because of their perfectly cylindrical shape. When they are sliced to make nacho slices, the pieces are uniform. There are also no-heat jalapeños, better known as ‘sweet jalapeños.’
“One jalapeño plant can yield varying Scoville values from pepper to pepper. Peppers at the top of the plant typically have higher capsicum levels than those on the bottom because the plant generates more capsicum to protect the peppers on top.”
At Mizkan, fresh jalapeños are received, the heat level determined and then they are processed into a variety of dice sizes.
“Our smallest dice is 1/8-inch and is typically used as a particulate, and our largest dice is 3/8-inch, which is common in salsa,” Mr. Darling said.
Ms. Greene said such versatility means chefs can adapt the taste and heat levels by roasting, grilling or frying the peppers.
“They are a great plus-one application and allow for versatility and customer customization,” she said. “In QSRs (quick-service restaurants) we see pickled jalapeños more than fresh, because it allows QSRs to offer high flavor without needing any back-of-house preparation. Chain restaurants are using pickled jalapeños in both food and beverage categories, reflecting growth of the pickling trend.”
Ms. Cheely said current events, most notably the coronavirus pandemic, may be propelling the uptick in new products featuring jalapeños.
“Recent innovations featuring jalapeños could possibly be giving new fusions of peppers and flavors a breather during this complicated time in the world,” she said. “Consumers are finding comfort in food and find jalapeños to be familiar without sacrificing the heat element.
“Similar to the resurgence of the fried chicken sandwich, it could be another cyclical trend that is coming back for attention. The chicken sandwich was nothing new. We’ve had it for decades.”