Could “hot and spicy” be on the way out? Today’s foodies and food innovators are seeking earthier, deeper, and more complex flavor experiences that still coincide with the Scoville scale. They expect more than a simple hot and spicy. 

More than half of consumers choose spicier food options and this this number has doubled since 2017, according to Food Navigator report in December 2019. In the past five years, consumers have traveled more to new locales and have been exposed to new pepper varietals, culinary preparations and unique ingredient combinations. People constantly seek new flavor experiences—other than hot—with 66% of consumers stating that they love to discover new flavors (according to Innova Market Insights 2019).

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the necessity for foodies to create their own at-home discoveries. Coincidentally, we noticed a surge of home-cooked meals including more exotic and adventuresome ingredients. One example of more complex flavors includes the African Birdseye chili peppers, featured in Peri Peri sauces. These peppers have a smoky fig and berry flavor with a flawless punch. Some Peri Peri sauces substitute peppers other than African Birdseye peppers. For example, the culinary curious might try red jalapenos or even red bell peppers and these will give the sauce a slightly sweeter taste or coconut milk for a different mouthfeel. 

Jalapenos are still the work horse peppers for heat, showing up in the largest number of new product launches at nearly 20%, followed by chipotle, habanero and sriracha (Innova Markets Insight 2019). However, we are now seeing food innovators using smoked or fermented peppers and even using pickled peppers in products to achieve flavor layering and complexity. 

Additionally, many manufacturers opt for inclusions of chunkier peppers to further enhance heartiness in a sauce or marinade. Peppers and peppery spices are versatile ingredients across multiple cuisines and can be the common denominator in almost any cuisine originating from warm climates. Spurring from vastly different parts of the world, Mexico, Thailand, India and Jamaica, spicy chili pepper will always be a common denominator 

Smoky notes also are trending as an addition to heat. Food innovators are adding these elements with cold smoke, natural smoke or steam smoking. Techniques vary widely and could include liquid smoke or spray-on smoke. Processors also may physically cook a protein over flavorful wood such as applewood, hickory or cherry. We are seeing smoky flavors paired with chilis such as Hatch or Aji Amarillo. That’s combining smoke and heat in BBQ sauces, marinades, dressings and even cocktails.

Dairy also has made interesting category strides as a vehicle for complex heat. From jalapenos in mozzarella sticks, to additional heat and spices in pre-portioned protein snack packs, we’re seeing demand for greater depth of flavors. Even desserts and ice creams are getting in on the heat trend. We have witnessed innovation at boutique ice scream shops that is escalating and influencing larger manufacturing flavor trends. 

It is an interesting time for heat applications for food innovators. Besides being a great source of vitamin C, capsaicin from chili peppers is a great source of antioxidant carotenoids and is linked to numerous health benefits. Chips, nut mixes, snack bars and sauces are great introductory vehicles for consumers to experience the new earthy heat combinations coupled with a “better for you” snack. Peruse the grocery store aisle and you’ll see iterations such as sweet honey heat, ginger with heat, turmeric with heat and even brown sugar maple with heat. 

The new options truly reflect the diversity of today’s consumer ethnicity. Consumers crave something new and discoverable. With the influx of social media advertising, consumers also want to be first to discover a new trend or flavor and share it with friends. Food innovators are tuned into this, and we predict that the race for hotter, more complex flavors will continue on trend throughout 2021 and beyond.  

Jessica Goldstein is director of marketing and “resident spice girl” for Nu Products Seasoning Co. Ron Spaziani, CRC, is Nu Products’ corporate chef and culinary research & development manager. For more information, visit