Prepared Foods talks snack trends and tastes with Jody Denton, an executive research chef for Frito-Lay North America and PepsiCo Global Snacks. Denton joined Frito-Lay in 2011 after more than 30 years working in independent restaurants nationwide and around the world. Now he works at the company’s Culinary Innovation Center known as “The Flavor Kitchen” based at Frito-Lay headquarters in Plano, Texas.


Prepared Foods: Frito-Lay’s new products demonstrate that hot and spicy are clear flavor trends. During the past few years, what have you learned most in regard to this area of snack seasoning and flavor development? 

Chef Jody Denton: For decades, I’ve been watching the growing US acceptance of spicier and spicier flavors and it even seems to be accelerating. What’s interesting is that this is especially true now in the North where traditionally, spice was not a big deal and it was even feared, you might say.

It appears that as the population is exposed to more spicy foods, they seem to want more and more. And of course, that’s fine by me because I’m a devout, fire-breathing chili-head!  The fact that you are seeing more Frito-Lay snacks that are spicy is directly related to consumer input and sales. Consumers are telling us they want spicy and they are buying those snacks.


PF: Aside from hot and spicy, what other flavor trends are impacting snacks?

Denton: We pay close attention to trends of ingredients, flavors and cuisines and we try to catch things just at the right point on the adoption curve—when they are rising in popularity but not yet mainstream.  That is the sweet spot. 

Right now, some hot ones are Indian and Korean on the cuisine side. In terms of ingredients, we see turmeric, mushrooms, cauliflower and beets all rising, although some can be polarizing.


PF: Is there a new Frito-Lay offering that you’re particularly proud of? Why?

Denton: I’m quite proud of Doritos Blaze for two reasons. One, I think the flavor is awesome and complex, and secondly I’m proud of the process that we used to get to that flavor. It was quite extensive and intense.

It started with the request for a more complex, spicy flavor for Doritos Flamin’ Hot, which is a relatively simple combination of citric acid and heat. We worked our way down from more than 100 real food flavors to get to that one for Doritos Blaze. It took months but the end-result was worth it. It’s one of my favorite flavors and I’m proud to have been involved with the project.


PF: In what other ways do chefs influence new product development involving snacks? Would it involve such areas as texture or noting greater use of fermentation and its impact on flavor?

Denton: Our five research chefs have their hands in almost every aspect of product development—from  researching what to do with new trending ingredients, to helping to brainstorm new snack ideas to helping to refine those ideas and even helping to commercially scale-up those products.

We work on flavor, texture, new forms and on and on. We develop early prototypes in the kitchen when we might not even know as a company how we might go about making something. Yet, if we can get stakeholders excited about something they can see, touch and taste, it helps to make the case to invest in what it would take to launch a product.


PF: In what ways do you consider nutritional issues (reduced sodium, sugar, fat, calories, etc.) as you work? Can you share an example?

Denton: My team and I have participated in many projects over the years involving sodium and fat reduction. There are entire teams in PepsiCo dedicated to those pursuits, but where we get involved involves exploring how chefs can cook with less sodium and fat. Next then, we try to apply those learnings in our product development.


PF: Where do you go for snacking inspiration?

Denton: Whenever I travel, especially globally, I always like to hit the markets, groceries and convenience stores to see what kind of snacks are on the shelves.  It’s different everywhere.

I definitely look at the restaurant world—particularly independents—to see what chefs are doing with food and that inspires me.


PF: Consumers appear to be snacking more to cope with this COVID-19 pandemic. Are you sensing that?

Denton: I’ve spoken to so many people who read about “COVID Cheetos bingeing” and they say “That’s totally me!” 

The one related trend that I didn’t see coming involves breakfast. More people are eating breakfast at home consistently and that’s been good for sales of our other products, including brands such as  Quaker Oats and Tropicana!


PF: What are your “go-to “snacks? 

Denton: I’m a sucker for Cheddar Jalapeno Cheetos, but I try to moderate that. More often, I’ll have a little turkey or jerky.  It’s hard not to eat our snacks all day with them around all the time. That’s because I really do think they are the best on the market. I’m not always successful at turning away if there is a bag nearby.

Restaurant to Retail: Frito-Lay Brings Iconic Restaurant Flavors to Featured Chip Line

But Make It Chips

It’s no secret that the nation’s COVID-19 pandemic made it harder for consumers to savor their favorite restaurant offerings. Yet why not bring authentic restaurant flavors home in other forms. That’s exactly what Frito-Lay North America has done with a new limited-time Lay’s “Flavor Icons” series that rolled out in July.

Executive Research Chef Jody Denton led a team of corporate chefs and food scientists to several well-known restaurants nationwide. Afterward, they returned to develop five new flavors all “inspired by” the restaurants.

New flavors included …
… Lay’s Kettle Cooked New York Style Pizza inspired by Grimaldi’s in New York City
… Lay’s Nashville Hot Chicken inspired by Party Fowl in Nashville
… Lay’s Philly Cheesesteak inspired by Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia
… Lay’s Wavy Carnitas Street Taco inspired by El Torito in Los Angeles
… Lay’s Chile Relleno inspired by Cocina Azul in Albuquerque (available exclusively at Walmart and 7-Eleven)

“It was a lot of fun and we all loved the Nashville Hot Chicken and ate way too much of it that week. The biggest challenge was working with the chefs and restaurant owners to get the accurate information,” says Denton. “In one case they didn’t have recipes and just had one of their cooks do the dish while we documented. I guess I’m always proud when we get back the final finished [chip] product and realize that it’s a really close match with the real food design target.”