Chili peppers have been a part of the human diet for thousands of years, but the origins of heat in foods and beverages is rooted in alliums, rhizomes, and peppercorns. A savvy food product developer knows that the source (or sources) of heat is only one part of the equation. There also needs to be the right complement of flavors.

Heat as a basic flavor note can be derived from multiple sources other than chili peppers, including ginger, cloves, horseradish (including wasabi), and even good old peppercorns (white, black, and green). But chili peppers — in their hundreds of sizes, shapes, varieties, and heat levels — still dominate.

Recently, consumers have taken their burgeoning love affair with hot foods to newer heights, as represented by a fascination with super-hot chili peppers. Peppers that were non-existent or only rarely heard of a decade ago are finding their way into sauces and foods (often snacks such as chips and popcorn) with four-alarm regularity.

Research by Innova Market Insights revealed that there were more than 18,000 new spicy products introduced in 2016. And a Mintel search found a jump of more than 200% in hot and spicy snacks released just between Q2 2018 and Q1 2019.

“We’ve seen a constant upward trend in public acceptance of spicier foods and chili peppers — outside of the Southwest — especially over the last 10 or so years,” notes Jody Denton, executive research chef at PepsiCo.’s Frito-Lay. “The variety of chili peppers that are known by consumers has skyrocketed. Thirty years ago, the jalapeño was pretty much the only pepper people had heard of. Then the smoked version, the chipotle, emerged and soon became widespread.”

Denton describes a number of different peppers now in common use in the food industry. “Today, a number of other chili peppers have moved higher up on the adoption curve, including ancho, guajillo, serrano, habanero, chili de arbol, aji amarillo, and many more. The adoption of Thai as a new ‘national ethnic cuisine’ also brought Thai chili peppers and sriracha, and now that top ethnic spot is giving way to Korean, [with] gochujang and gochujaru.”

According to Denton, the factors driving the shift toward greater inclusion of hot and spicy ingredients has been “simply a matter of increased exposure over time.” He explains that, while people in the Southwest “have always been exposed to spicy foods and chili peppers, so their tolerance is much higher, it’s just taken longer for the rest of the country” to catch on to that particular pleasure.

McCormick dialed up prepared food offerings with the acquisition and subsequent expansion of the “Frank’s Red Hot” brand, and restaurant chains are on board, too. For example, Yum! Brands Inc.’s KFC restaurants introduced spicy comfort fare with Kentucky Hot chicken, a take on Nashville Hot fried chicken. Loaded with cayenne, it’s the company’s most successful product launch in years.

The call for heat is flaring into prepared meals as well, with superhot peppers finding their way into formulations, and heat-seeking chefs expanding the toolbox of ingredients they deploy to fire up their formulations.


The Spice is Right

By Raminder Bindra

The American palate is getting hotter and spicier thanks to the ongoing food revolution inspired by today’s chef culture and the spread of global, ethnic foods. As evidence, one of the top condiments in the US today is sriracha, the garlic and red chili pepper sauce popular in Vietnamese and Thai cuisines. Some of this passion for pepper is driven by the desire for culinary adventure.

According to research recently conducted by OnePoll on behalf of the hot sauce brand El Yucateco, if you prefer spicier food, there’s a good chance you also “lead a spicier life.” The study asked Americans a series of questions about their personality and then split the results by how spicy they prefer their food (none, mild, medium, and hot).

Results of the OnePoll survey showed that spicy palates could arguably correlate to a sense of adventure, with those marking themselves as “hot” on the spice range more likely to say they “love roller coasters,” “listen to loud music,” and even “drive fast down a winding road.”

Of course, the easiest way of adding “heat” to food is to use chili peppers. Varieties range from the “simple” red and green hot peppers available to “superhots” like the 2.2 million Scoville Carolina Reaper.

But heat isn’t just about pepper. You can flare up, for example, a simple coriander chutney simply by adding fresh radish. These other ingredients and spices bring balance and layered complexity that support and play off the heat. Thai curries rely on various pastes made from combinations of ingredients ranging from herbs, shallots, garlic, and ginger to lemongrass and galangal alongside the peppers to bring depth and flavor to the pepper’s spiciness.

Korean cuisine offers gochujang, a red chili paste-based ingredient rapidly gaining popularity for its complex heat. It combines savory, sweet, and spicy fermented flavors and features powdered glutinous rice with red chili paste as its base ingredients.

Sweetness and smokiness are another way of adding complexity to the basic heat of peppers. Smoked chili peppers such as the chipotle or ancho have enjoyed an enduring popularity that is slowly expanding into cuisines well beyond their Mexican origins.

In Indian curries, classic combinations of onion, ginger, and garlic, along with garam masala, are used to give well-rounded experiences. Cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander seeds, and bay leaves also provide broad warm spiciness that stays longer on the palate.

The development of a good, hot flavor profile requires combinations of heat, sweet, acidity, and savoriness among the prominent characteristics to balance. Overcompensation in one attribute will diminish the perception of other characteristics.

Raminder Bindra is the founder of Seven Spoons cuisine and Strategic Fusions/Culinary Fusions Incubator (CFI). CFI specializes in ethnic and healthy foods innovation. They have built a global network of chefs, healthy ingredient growers, co-packers, and industry experts to accelerate the process of bringing flavor opportunities to life. CFI has consulted with companies ranging from Hershey Co. and Perdue Inc. to boutique manufacturers and start-ups. You may contact him at


Fire Brigade

Much of the growth in hot and spicy products is in the snack channel, with a major portion attributed to protein snacks, both meat based and plant based. For example, Frito Lay Inc., followed up its popular “Doritos Blaze” debut in the 2018 Super Bowl with the introduction of Doritos Flamin’ Hot Nacho for the 2019 Super Bowl — proving that “Flamin’ Hot” is not just a descriptor, but a provocative brand portfolio.

Characteristic flavors of chili peppers can run the gamut from slightly peppery, astringent poblano peppers to fruity habaneros, to the subtle green bell pepper notes in a jalapeño. Keeping in mind that a chili pepper is botanically a berry, the goal in using specific peppers should be to include all the flavors, not just the heat.

A world made smaller by instant-access media platforms, affordable global travel, and increased cultural diversity in many communities has driven consumer interest in spicier foods. For example, spicy ramen noodle dishes have evolved from inexpensive subsistence in an instant form to a worship-worthy cuisine, both as restaurant fare and high-end prepared meals.

The persistently crowded prepared meals category is making room on the shelves to accommodate the new consumers’ spicy sense of adventure. While companies like Saffron Foods Inc. have an impressive history serving up authentic ethnic cuisines, heat and all, mainstream product makers are not sitting idly by.

The past couple of years have seen such examples as a Korean Style Chili Rice and Quinoa Bowl from Lundberg Family Farms Inc., Roasted Red Pepper & Egg White Shakshuka Power Bowl by ConAgra Brands Inc.’s Healthy Choice line, and a heat-and-eat Sriracha Shrimp Bowl made exclusively for ALDI Nord GmbH’s Trader Joe’s supermarkets.


Amping to 11

While experienced food product developers, marketers, and business leaders know that consumer insights and demands are paramount in product design and deployment, there are nuances in the sources and interpretation.

Amplify Snack Brands Inc. (now owned by The Hershey Co.) took a proactive approach with its Paqui line of tortilla chips. While the company has infused powerful heat into three of the five flavors on offer, it was one of the first to use a superhot pepper in a national rollout. Paqui aggressively marketed its “Haunted Ghost Pepper” flavor to great success.

This opened the door to the development of other food items using the ghost pepper and, more recently, some boutique companies have launched items flavored with Trinidad Scorpion, Carolina Reaper, and other of the so-called “superhots.”

The three hottest superhots currently being used in food production are the “ghost pepper” (Bhut jolokia), coming in at around 750,000-1 million Scoville Heat Units (SHU), the Trinidad Scorpion at about 1-1.5 million SHU, and the Carolina Reaper at 2-2.2 million SHU. (As pepper breeders strive to outdo each other for the record on Scovilles, some hotter peppers — approaching 4 million SHU — now exist, but they have yet to be made widely commercially available.)

For comparison, a common jalapeño (still the most popular chili pepper) has a heat level of 3,000-8,000 SHU; a serrano has about 6,000-20,000 SHU; and a habanero has 100,000-350,000 SHU. But a developer can’t merely sprinkle some of these explosive flavors into a formulation. Using superhots — or any heat source — takes finesse. But these peppers are not just hot. The Trinidad Scorpion, for all its blistering heat, has a short “half-life” that gives way quickly to its strong fruity notes and a hint of sweetness.

The production and exploration of superhot chili peppers has led to the development of products that blend these ingredients with other peppers that have less heat but similar flavor. Paprika and bell peppers are common examples. Flavor companies are constantly innovating to deliver these specific nuances and the results are fantastic.

Experience with hot and spicy foods could be especially important if the developer is working on certain product forms. Liquid products such as sauces, dressings, and beverages demand an understanding of whether the other flavor ingredients are fat-soluble or water-soluble. 

On the other hand, low-moisture snack products (such as crackers, chips, popcorn, and even jerky and similar products) that utilize topical flavors rely more heavily on the performance of the raw material that is formulated into seasoning.

A more in-depth culinary approach is required for the development of prepared food items, regardless of whether they are frozen, shelf stable, or ready-to-eat meals. 

Basic recipe formulation serves best as the first layer of the development process, followed by ingredient specification to achieve cost and quality targets. More processed ingredients can help reduce cost but become challenging for clean label.

Fresh, minimally processed ingredients go a long way in delivering superior quality but may have consequences for cost. This is why a cross-functional approach between business, marketing, science, and culinary are critical to successful product innovation, and as the desire for spicier foods flourishes, that holistic approach will help brands out innovate and insulate themselves against the competition.


Handle with Care

Scorpion Pepper

PHOTO: Wes Naman Photography (

Capsaicinoids, the chemical compounds found in the volatile oils of a chili pepper and thus its source of heat, include five organic types, two of which — capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin — account for 91% of the impact. These are the most pungent capsaicinoids and, in pure form, they top out at around 16 million SHU.

Studies have revealed variations in the concentration of capsaicin throughout the anatomy of the chili pepper. The lowest concentration is in the calyx (stem end) and seeds that have migrated to the apex, opposite the stem. The highest concentration is in the placenta (ribs and pith), followed by the flesh. The more the pepper is processed, the more the capsaicin migrates — most commonly when the seeds and pericarp are still intact.

When working on formulations with fresh chili peppers, some mitigation of heat can be achieved by eliminating the placenta and seeds. This processing step can easily be avoided by sourcing quality, industrial ingredients in the form of flakes, powders, and pastes.

Controlling the level of heat from capsaicin is only one part of designing the flavor experience. With heat as the base, it is critical to consider first the complementary and contrasting flavors within the peppers or pepper products, then the flavors of the accompanying ingredients.


Black and White

Probably the most prized source of heat, and one that has the richest documented history, is the peppercorn. The heat comes from an alkaloid compound called piperine in the husk and seed of the peppercorn. Black pepper retains its husk and also undergoes slight fermentation that further complexes the flavors. The peppercorn also contains terpene compounds that round out the piperine heat with citrusy, woody, and floral notes.

White peppercorns are simply husked black peppercorns and so they lose a lot of complexity. However, they can be used to contribute controlled heat, and they work well in formulations that benefit from avoiding the black specks of freshly ground peppercorns. Green peppercorns — unripe, brined, or pickled peppercorns — have a more vegetal flavor and mild heat and work well in pastes and sauces.

Some of the most flavorful varieties of black, white, and red peppercorns originate in Cambodia and were lost during the Khmer Rouge period in the 1970s. They are only now are making their return to global distribution.

For a spicy heat experience of a unique nature, many Western culinarians have been paying closer attention to the Sichuan peppercorn. It is unrelated to chili peppers or peppercorns and is actually a citrus relative in the family Zanthoxylum.

Originating in the heart of China, it is the ingredient that first contributed to the unique and flavor of Sichuan regional cuisine, before the introduction and adoption of chili peppers. It’s one of the ingredients in the traditional version of Chinese Five-Spice powder.

Light on actual heat, Sichuan peppercorns have recently been popping up on the American restaurant scene — owing to the mouth-numbing and persistent, tingling sensation they leave on the lips and tongue.

“There are a number of different black pepper varieties, each with their own unique flavor notes,” says Raminder Bindra, founder and CEO of Strategic Fusions/Culinary Fusions Incubator. “Common black pepper varieties are Tellicherry and Malabar. However, other varieties are seeing increasing use, such as Indonesian Lampong, Malaysian Sarawak, and South American transplants Talamaca and Brazilian.”


Since the flavors are locked in the volatile oils of peppers, purchasing and handling should focus on preserving the oils as much as possible. “As with other spices, dried peppercorns should be purchased whole and as close to using as possible,” says Bindra. “They should be ground only as needed to preserve the volatile oils, where the true flavor resides. Otherwise, all you get is the flat heat without the nice fruitiness behind the berry that rounds out the heat with flavor.”


The Roots of Spice

Heat is a basic taste, and chili peppers are only one source of heat. Allicin is a spicy flavor molecule found in plants of the allium family, such as onion and garlic, and concentrated in the bulbs. It becomes reactive when the cells are ruptured and release an enzyme called alliinase. 

Allicin provides a heat sensation that is pungent and displays on the back of the tongue. A similar compound, allyl isothiocyanate, is found in mustard, radishes, ginger, horseradish, and the latter’s cousin, wasabi. It creates not only a spicy sensation, but also a retronasal heat sensation.

The heat from this family of ingredients is water-soluble as opposed to oil-soluble capsaicin. These ingredients can be used with a greater variety of complementary ingredients to provide layers of flavors that help sustain the eating experience.

However, balancing multiple flavors with peppers also adds pressure to the developer to balance the heat of the peppers themselves. “This is a challenge we’ve been pushing our dips team to solve at Frito-Lay,” acknowledges Denton. 

“Using pure capsaicin to precisely control the heat in a product works great from a purely process standpoint,” he says, “but capsaicin doesn’t deliver any of the wonderful flavors that chili peppers bring to the table. It also delivers heat in a very specific, harsh, and boring way as opposed to the wide variety of heat experiences it’s possible to attain from using natural chili peppers, especially multiple varieties in one formulation.”

The biggest challenge, according to Denton, is that “being a natural product, chili peppers vary wildly in their heat levels from one season to another and one shipment to another.” Denton’s solution is to use a percentage of natural chili peppers, testing the heat level per formulation batch, and “top dosing with capsaicin.”

Denton explains that many processors end up using a small amount of real, full-heat chili peppers in their products to attain the full flavor characteristics but providing the majority of heat delivery through capsaicin. “There might be minor fluctuations in the end product heat level,” he says, “but the flavor difference and consistency are worth it.”

Originally appeared in the June, 2019 issue of Prepared Foods as Heat Seekers.