One of the hottest trends in foods and beverages—a trend that just seems to get hotter and hotter with no end in sight—is hot peppers in sauces and formulations. Looking first to hot sauces, in just the past decade there has been a massive increase in the number of brands to hit the supermarket shelves. This is especially the case with boutique brands of hot sauces. Prepared Foods asked Frito Lay Co.’s Sr. Executive research chef Jody Denton what’s driving this surge in consumer demand for new hot sauces and the products that make generous use of hot and spicy palate igniters.

In full disclosure, the author and Mr. Denton have been fellow chefs, friends, and colleagues for nearly 40 years. But more than that, Denton has unimpeachable qualifications as far as hot and spicy flavors go. A native Texan, he worked for decades as a top chef in Texas and California, playing a major part of the Southwestern Cuisine movement of the 1980s. He has followed that with than a decade at Frito Lay developing hot and spicy snacks and sauces. To say he knows the business end of a chili pepper is an understatement.

Jody Denton, Sr. Executive Research Chef at Frito Lay Co.
Jody Denton, Sr. Executive Research Chef, Frito Lay Co. Photo courtesy of: Frito Lay Co.

Focusing first on hot sauces themselves, Denton notes that, “the biggest trend lately has been hot sauces that call out some of the super spicy peppers, like ghost pepper, Carolina Reaper, Trinidad Scorpion…and Naga Viper.” Although he notes that these are in the class of the so-called “super hots”—the “really, really hot, hot peppers,” as he describes them, he notes that in formulation, mainstream pepper sauce makers “usually don't use quite enough for it to blow your head off completely.” Still, some of these very small hot sauce crafters do compete for the title of maker of the hottest hot sauce.

Whether using chili peppers such as Habanero and Scotch bonnet or ghost pepper, Trinidad Scorpion, and Carolina Reaper, it’s worth pointing out that in addition to heat these peppers also carry “nice undertones” of “tropical fruit notes” that Denton says are particularly appealing.

This fruity note makes sense when one considers that, botanically, a chili pepper is a berry. And for some of these super hots, like the scorpion pepper—which, while having a heat that ranks as the second or third hottest commercially available (approximately 1.5 million Scoville units)—there also is a short “half-life” to the heat that lets it fade comparatively quickly and enhances the fruitiness of flavor.

Denton recommends focusing on a single pepper in a sauce (his favorite is the Scotch Bonnet, around 350,000 Scovilles). He also cautions against overpowering its flavor with vinegar. “Sometimes, vinegar [in a] hot sauce is great, but not in every hot sauce.” Recently, hot sauce makers have been relying on fruit extracts, especially tropical fruits like guava and pineapple, in place of some of the vinegar to balance out the heat. This works especially well with the super-hot chili peppers.

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New to the New World

Chili peppers are native to the Americas, but in many ways, they had to “ferment” for a few centuries in Southwest and East Asia—think: Indian, Thai, and Sichuan cuisines—before coming back to take over non-Southwestern North American palates by storm. “The exposure leads to acceptance and an actual desire for spicier and spicier foods, and that's what's happening to America,” says Denton.

In fact, an Instacart survey from 2021 revealed that 74% of the several thousand shoppers they polled said that they have hot sauce with every meal. Moreover, among other surveys, and depending on the individual one, show that anywhere from 75 to 95 % of consumers claim that they love spicy food.

Denton points to research that demonstrates how over the past several decades, consumer demand for spicy foods forms nearly a straight line up on a graph. “And it’s more and more and more spicy; even when you break it down by the regions of the country that traditionally are not used to a lot of spice. It's [due to] the influx of different culinary traditions.”

Frito-Lay Dinamita Doritos
The consumer craving for chili pepper sauces and flavors is getting hotter and hotter. Photo courtesy of: Frito Lay Co.

A specific shift Denton has noticed is of hot pepper being used in formulations that don’t traditionally call for much heat. “It used to be spicy was only in cuisines that were associated with being hot. [Now] it’s spreading out into more and more areas.” He cites fried chicken, hamburgers, and potato dishes as several prominent examples.

Chili peppers Denton has his eye on for future appearance in sauces and formulations are guajillo and puya. “Chili peppers are climbing that adoption curve and different ones are getting name recognition.

Rules of the Road

Denton shared a few of his top considerations product developers should have in mind when they set out to develop something fiery and flavorful. While recognizing that manufacturing at scale imposes challenges, he especially encourages developers to avoid using pepper extracts on the one hand, and “de-heated” peppers (such as the jalapeño) on the other to manage heat consistency in a product. This can be hard, especially as there is such variety in heat with each batch of peppers, and even with peppers grown on the same bush. However, batch testing the Scovilles and topping off the heat or adding weaker versions of the same pepper variety in play can lead to a better final product. “You really lose a lot when you don't use the real peppers in creating the product,” Denton admonishes.

Another consideration of Denton’s is how many products labeled as hot pepper sauces include ingredients that are not chilies. They can carry everything from garlic, onions, and tomatoes or even vegetables such as carrots and different fruits. “You’ve got to be careful about not having those ancillary ingredients overrun the chili because the hot sauce needs to be about the chili—it needs to say, ‘I am a chili pepper product, not just a hot vegetable sauce. He cautions pepper sauce makers to “keep the pepper forward.”

Denton offers a lot more tips and insights into making and using hot chili peppers in sauces and food formulations in his interview. Hear it in full by watching the video interview or listening to the podcast.