Adventurous consumers are turning up the heat on chefs and products developers to formulate foods and beverages with bolder flavors and ranges of heat, from subtle to scorching.
The cuisines of Mexico, the Caribbean, Peru, Brazil, Thailand, India, and the American South and Southwest are rich with a diverse mixture of foods and ingredients that provide heat and other pungent tastes or offer warm spice notes. “There’s so much depth to any one of these cuisines and so many ways you can use these ingredients,” remarks Barbara Zatto, Director of Culinary for Mizkan. Professional chefs name Peruvian, Korean, and Southeast Asian, including Thai, Vietnamese, and Malaysian, as some of the top ethnic cuisines in 2013 (NRA, 2013).
The use of ingredients like jalapeno peppers and hot sauce has evolved through the culinary and food product development arenas so that they are now considered mainstream. Others are “emerging” as chefs continue to experiment and product developers look for creative ways to provide consumers with different taste experiences. The word “emerging,” of course, relates to the fact that some of these ingredients have been, up to this point, unfamiliar to the average American diner or consumer. But people around the world have used these chili peppers and spices in a variety of foods and beverages for centuries.
As people immigrate to the United States, they bring their culinary traditions with them. More people are traveling not only around the United States, where some regional dishes feature flavorful and mouth-burning ingredients, but abroad as well, giving them the chance to experience local cuisines and indigenous ingredients. Zatto also attributes the continued popularity of hot and spicy foods to the growing population and maturing demographic of second-generation Hispanics, Asians, Indians, and people from the Middle East who have a strong connection to foods from their respective cultures as well as increased buying power. Add to this the popularity of food writing, food television, cookbooks, independent restaurants, and food trucks, and there is no doubt that a greater number of people have become more educated about food and ingredients and have started to demand that chefs and product developers offer new and exciting food choices.
Feeling the Burn of Spicy Foods
Ingredients like chili peppers, mustard, horseradish, pepper, ginger, and Szechuan peppercorn contribute various pungent sensations to foods and beverages that often are referred to as hot and spicy. The flavors, levels of intensity of sensations, and duration of the sensory experience differ from one ingredient to the next. Capsaicin is the primary molecule responsible for the heat and burning sensations associated with chili peppers. This compound and others like allyl isothiocyanate in mustard and horseradish, piperine in black and white pepper, and hydroxy-alpha-sanshool in Szechuan peppercorn are known as chemesthetic agents, compounds that activate pain and touch receptors in the nose and mouth to elicit sensations of burning, tingling, numbing, and cooling, explained Shane T. McDonald, Principle Flavor Chemist at Kalsec Inc., who presented a technical session during the 2013 IFT Annual Meeting & Food Expo. Put another way, “the idea is activating the touch system with a chemical rather than a physical stimulus,” reported John Hayes, Assistant Professor at Penn State University, who spoke at the same event.
What comes to mind first when discussing hot and spicy foods most likely is the chili pepper. Chili peppers have quite a range of heat sensation, from pleasantly mild to painfully hot. People can actually experience various levels of desensitization to capsaicin, according to research conducted by Hayes and his colleagues. One study showed that by repeatedly stimulating the chemosensory system every 30 seconds with a solution of capsaicin, the burn intensity increases (acute sensitization), and after a short rest period between 2.5 and 5 minutes is given between exposures, the burn intensity decreases (acute desensitization). Hayes also noted that previous research conducted has shown that frequent dietary intake of foods containing capsaicin can cause chronic desensitization in people for whom the peak heat intensity is initially lower and the burn intensity diminishes more quickly.