Chicago’s Meatloaf Bakery sells its A Wing and A Prayer Loaf in three sizes: Loafies (positioned as appetizers), an 8oz cupcake shape and the traditional 9in loaf.  A hot-and-spicy wing sauce adds heat.

Americans have developed a taste for hot and spicy. Peppers, hot sauces and spicy rubs are being added to familiar comfort foods. On grocery store shelves, everything from meatloaf to pizza seems to be offered in a hot variety. Additionally, ethnic fare, from Thai to the Caribbean and Latin America, find favor for their heat, which is also called pungency.

Retail Realities
Not long ago, a mild, manufactured version of salsa was considered spicy enough for most Americans. Now, nearly every national grocery store chain carries the Heinz Hot & Spicy brand of ketchup, packaged in a 15oz bottle and containing Tabasco® Sauce. The flavor is described as the thick, rich taste of Heinz ketchup, combined with the peppery flavor of Tabasco brand pepper sauce.

Other examples of retail products include Kraft Foods’ recent launch of a 12oz, frozen, Sicilian, crispy, thin-crust pizza under its California Pizza Kitchen brand. The pizza has a spicy flavor and is made with ham, salami, Italian sausage, a zesty-flavored marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese, Fontina cheese, Parmesan cheese and basil. The Campbell Soup Company has introduced a grilled chicken and sausage gumbo, packaged in a 15¼-oz microwavable, heat-and-serve container under its Chunky brand name. One of the heat ingredients used in the gumbo is andouille sausage, a spicy pork sausage.

Heat flavors are even showing up in beef jerky snack products. Bridgford Foods Corp. has added two spicy products to its line of beef jerky products. Its Sweet & Hot 3.2oz bag of Bridgford jerky is made with beef, hot flavoring, monosodium glutamate and curing ingredients. Another of its products is beef jerky honey chipotle, which comes in a 2.75oz bag, under the Sweet Baby Ray’s Gourmet Sauce Brand, and has a sweet flavor with the heat.

The foodservice segment also hastens to heat. About a year ago, Cynthia Kallile opened The Meatloaf Bakery in Chicago, a concept specializing in making a variety of flavored meatloaf, using ingredients common to comfort foods. One of its popular dishes is A Wing and A Prayer Loaf, made with a hot-and-spicy wing sauce, crumbled bleu cheese, ground chicken and celery; it is topped with a buttery bleu cheese crust and ranch dressing.

The Science of Sensing Heat
When considering ingredients that add heat to a formula or recipe, chili peppers are often first to mind, although there are a number of herbs, spices and chemicals that trigger the sensation of “heat.” Indeed, the understanding of how humans perceive pungency and other sensations of taste continues to advance.

In order to sense taste, pain, cooling and heating (both chemical and temperature) in the mouth, certain protein receptors must be activated. “The big push now in research is to understand sensation in terms of receptors. To understand a sensation, we not only have to know which receptors are activated, but also how these receptors are arranged on different types of nerves and how the brain interprets signals from the nerves,” says Bruce Bryant, Ph.D., senior research associate of Philadelphia-based Monell Chemical Senses Center.

“Some 15 years ago, we knew something was up with capsaicin, which had the ability to produce both heat and pain sensations,” says Bryant. A high enough capsaicin exposure actually causes specific types of nerves to die. “When the receptor for capsaicin was cloned and identified, it helped us understand the types of neurons that had this receptor on them. This set of receptors is important for the sensation of pain,” he notes. While this knowledge addressed capsaicin’s ability to trigger pain, it did not explain its ability to create the sensation of “heat.” This latter case involves a family of receptors that are activated by changes in temperature; some receptors respond to moderate cooling or warming, others respond only to much greater temperature changes. Some of the receptors that detect changes in temperature (i.e., thermal heat) also detect chemical (pungency) heat.

More specifically, certain receptors, called TVRP3 and TVRP4, which are present in skin cells and nerves, are sensitive to only moderate warming. Camphor also activates one of these “warm sensors.” Capsaicin, on the other hand, activates a protein receptor called TRPV1 that delivers a sensation of greater heat. TRPV1 is also activated by high acidity, thermal heat and certain other compounds, including very high levels of high-intensity sweeteners. In this last case, the activation of TRPV1 by the sweeteners contributes to a metallic taste. While thermal heat and the various compounds all activate TRPV1, they are perceived differently, since all those stimulants also activate other receptors on different nerves, as well.

Specific chemicals that trigger a pungency/heat sensation have long been identified. Examples include ethanol (as in alcoholic drinks), zingerone (ginger) and piperine (black pepper), which activate TRPV1. Other compounds, such as allyl isothiocyanate (AITC) in wasabi, mustard and radish; cinnamaldehyde (cinnamon); and diallyl sulfide (onions) activate a related receptor called TRPA1. This receptor is found on the same pain nerves as TRPV1, and, together, they have the key function of signaling potentially harmful substances or temperatures by evoking pain.

The increased understanding on how heat is sensed is helpful, when conducting sensory panels for a food product. To start, “One must differentiate between ‘warmth’ and [the hotter sensation of] ‘pungency,’” says Bryant. Different sensory mechanisms mediate those two taste sensations. Often, the vocabulary used to describe those sensations is not made clear. Secondly, when putting together a sensory panel, one should know two things about the participants that influence their rating of a food’s pungency. The first is a person’s history with pungent foods; with long, continuous exposure, one becomes desensitized. In some Latin American countries, children are given sweet treats with hot red peppers that may start a process resulting in eventual decreased sensitivity to pungent foods. A second factor to consider is a person’s hedonic preference; that is, how much do they enjoy a high heat level, which is basically a pain stimulus?

While much knowledge has been gained, some information still needs to be unraveled. “The interface between thermal and pungent sensation is not completely worked out,” says Monell’s Bryant.

Foodservice Findings
While new consumer foods emphasizing heat continue to populate grocery shelves, and sensory science offers an increasingly complete picture on how humans perceive heat, interest by the foodservice industry depends on the particular categories under consideration.

Spicy is still a trend in foodservice. It is a mainstay on the menu. What changes are the degrees of heat, combinations of heat and applications of heat. Spicy beverages have become popular over that past few years. However, “Last year, I saw more ‘spicy’ beverages than I do now,” admits Maria Caranfa, director of Mintel Menu Insights, a leading market research firm. “Now, beverages tend to have only hints of mildly spicy ingredients, like ginger, instead of stronger spicy flavors, such as jalapeño, for example.” The most predominant flavor associated with heat now showing up on menus is ginger. Ginger in beverages is extremely popular; examples include house-made ginger beer, muddled ginger in cocktails and smoothies. “Ginger goes better with fruit-flavored beverages, in general, than, say, jalapeño, and is much more consumer-friendly [in beverages],” she concludes.

In foods, “ginger has become the new garlic,” notes Caranfa. “Spicy flavors like chili peppers are very popular, but here, too, we are seeing more ‘sweet heat;’ that is, sweet-and-spicy flavor combinations. I’m not seeing as overtly spicy dishes, outside of quick service. Taco Bell has introduced its Volcano Menu with over-the-top heat,” she says. More often, restaurant dishes with ginger, wasabi or chilis use these ingredients to add more subtle heat in the background.

One slowing emerging beverage trend provides a “heat” sensation through the alcohol content, although that is not the primary driver. “Comfort foods are making a comeback, primarily in the form of regional comfort, with some emphasis on ‘Southern comfort,’” notes Caranfa. For example, drinks such as “The Arnold Palmer;” tea and lemonade to which alcohol is added; or a cocktail of Southern Comfort liquor blended with tea, are all appearing on menus.

As on-trend taste and flavor experiences continue to evolve, whether heat comes from wasabi, chilis or even ethanol, “heat” will play a central role in many products.  pf

Website Resources: APF E-ditionexclusive, “Spices: Chili,” authored by the Guelph Food Technology Centre In the upper right-hand side of the page, change the drop down menu to “author” and type “Wilbert Jones” in the search field below it to see Southern regional cookbooks authored by Jones, includingSmothered Southern FoodsandThe New Soul Food Cookbook.