Fiery Flavors: Consumers seek bolder flavors, yet still demand full transparency

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As U.S. consumers’ demands for flavor become more sophisticated, food merchants are responding to the trend. Revisions to restaurant menus and grocery store stock are indicative of the growing mainstream interest in bold, internationally-inspired tastes. Just a decade ago, diners and shoppers were primarily concerned with the level of heat or spiciness in a given dish, trying to prove how hot they could go. But emphasis has now shifted to a desire for more layered flavors, offering a complexity of spice, heat, and other complementary tastes. 

In a 2014 survey of consumers by Packaged Facts, 53% of survey respondents said that they were looking for bolder flavors in their foods. The immense popularity of Sriracha, previously known only on the West Coast and among East Asian food enthusiasts, reflects this movement toward spicy seasoning and stronger taste. Following in the path of this now common condiment, flavor analysts have identified Korean gochujang, a combination of red chili powder, rice, salt, and fermented soybeans, as the “next big thing.” Other global food influences predicted to hit trendy restaurants include Moroccan spice blends, in which a dozen or more spices are carefully fused to provide a complex layer of flavors, and Indian spices (think less straightforward curry powder, and more hand-ground combinations of curry leaves, ginger, turmeric, and so on).

Also gaining in popularity with consumers are fermented spicy products, such as kimchi, artisanally crafted pickles, and fish sauce. These are winning over many consumers interested in not just taste, but also in the reported health benefits of fermented probiotics. 

While all of these flavors demonstrate a heavy influence from overseas — primarily Asia and North Africa — consumers are, at the same time, becoming more conservative in their food choices in certain ways. Growing fears about genetically modified ingredients, and about the safety of some international produce, means that many shoppers are turning to locally grown food. Terms such as “small-batch” and “artisanal” are being embraced even by larger food manufacturers to promote a feeling of homely warmth and security.

A significant challenge facing flavorists and food manufacturers is how to combine a desire for global flavor with the comfort of home grown tradition. In order to first achieve the layers of heat, flavorists are moving beyond the straightforward addition of a jalapeno chili pepper. Now a host of chili peppers, from banana to serrano, are dried or smoked. Sugar and/or honey can enhance heat while simultaneously providing an interesting contrast of sweetness. Different types of heat and spice are blended, or fruit flavors are added so that each bite offers an alternating range of tastes. 

One recent indicator of changing consumer tastes was the second annual “Do Us a Flavor” contest, asking people to design a new flavor for Lay’s potato chips. The 2013 winner was the rather pedestrian Cheese Garlic Bread (although Sriracha did feature in the top three finalists). In 2014, the winning flavor was Wasabi Ginger, with Mango Salsa also appearing among the four finalists. Just a few years ago, the idea of wasabi in anything would have been off-putting for many; now it too has entered mainstream food culture.

Food manufacturers have been quick to embrace the trends toward heat. In addition to the contest-winning potato chips, a quick search of the average grocery store shelf now reveals adaptations of homestyle favorites, such as canned sardines with hot green chilies, wasabi mayonnaise, and “craft” chocolate bars featuring ginger and sea salt.

One alleged benefit of the increasing attention (not to mention widespread enjoyment) that spicy food is getting? According to some experts, it may encourage customer loyalty. Arguing that the consumption of spices leads to a release of endorphins, and thereby an increased sense of happiness, Krista Lorio, senior manager of consumer insights at General Mills, claims that this satisfaction in turn creates brand loyalty. The consumer feels rewarded for their sense of culinary adventure and wants more. And since Millennials are leading the pack in their search for ever more sophisticated flavors, that loyalty could mean a long relationship for food companies.

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Product Name  Cat. No. FEMA No Quality Grade
Black Pepper Oil  W284505 2845 Natural, Kosher 
2-Isobutyl-3-methoxypyrazine  W313203 3132 ≥99%, FG, Halal, Kosher
Ginger Oil W252204 2522  FG, Natural, Halal, Kosher 
Eugenol  W246719 2467 ≥98%, FG, Natural, Kosher 
Carvacrol  W224511 2245 99%, FG, Natural, Kosher