Jalapeños sizzle in snacks, spreads and dips

by Monica Watrous
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Retailers and restaurants are having a hot fling with jalapeños, adding kick to cream cheese, canned tuna, crackers and cocktails.

“In the past, jalapeños appeared more in dishes that were expected to be spicy — for example, nachos and salsas,” said Lauren Hallow, an assistant editor at Chicago-based Technomic, Inc. “But lately, we’ve seen restaurants using jalapeños to add a kick to an otherwise not-so-spicy offering, such as burgers.”

The number of dishes with jalapeño as a flavor or ingredient increased about 15 percent from the period between January and March 2012 to the period between January and March 2013, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor data. Jalapeño-flavored appetizers grew 22 percent, and entrees featuring the pepper rose about 10 percent, including a 100 percent increase in pasta dishes, about 30 percent in chicken dishes, 20 percent in pork and 13 percent in burgers.

Carl’s Jr. and Hardees introduced a limited-time jalapeño turkey burger in December, and The Habit Burger is testing a blue cheese burger topped with pickled jalapeños and bacon. Jalapeños are pepping up pasta, such as Uno Chicago Grill’s recent addition of baked macaroni and cheese with jalapeño-alfredo sauce, and adding bite to bread, including Quiznos’ jalapeño-cheddar baguette.

The salsa staple also stars in sauces and spreads. Fast-casual chains Whataburger and Mooyah offered jalapeño-flavored ketchup this year, and Red Lobster recently added onion rings with a jalapeño-ranch sauce to its appetizer options. The late-night menu at Yard House includes Monte Cristo sliders served with powdered sugar and jalapeño-peach syrup. An item on Panera Bread’s hidden menu features a cilantro-jalapeño hummus.

Additionally, jalapeños are flavoring alcoholic beverages, including a jalapeño-cilantro mojito at BLT Steak, a pepper-melon margarita at Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine and a dirty martini with a jalapeño-stuffed olive at Jerry’s Famous Deli.

“Based off some of Technomic’s consumer trend reports, it appears more patrons, especially younger ones, are craving spicy options,” Hallow said. “This trend coincides with patrons also becoming more adventurous with their meal choices. However, this doesn’t mean that a majority of patrons are going to go out and order something with ghost peppers or smother their dishes in Tabasco sauce. So, that’s why we’ve seen a number of operators begin using jalapeños more, because it’s a safe way to spice up their offerings. Jalapeños add just enough kick without overwhelming the dish — and the consumer.”

The pepper has a familiarity factor that helps consumers predict a dish’s heat, Ms. Hallow said.

“In regards to spice level, jalapeños fall somewhere in the middle,” she said. “They’re more spicy than cherry peppers and Anaheim chiles, but less spicy than Serrano and habanero chiles. People are familiar with them, so if they see a jalapeño turkey burger or a salad with jalapeño-ranch dressing on the menu somewhere, they can guess how spicy that dish is going to be because it’s likely they’ve eaten something with jalapeños before.”

In retail, jalapeños appear in such recent roll-outs as Bumble Bee Foods’ Prime Filet canned tuna with jalapeños and olive oil and Kraft Foods’ Philadelphia Spicy Jalapeño Cream Cheese and Oscar Mayer Jalapeño Bologna. PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division this year unveiled Cheetos Mix-Ups snack mixes that include jalapeño cheddar-flavored puffs, and Snyder’s-Lance, Inc. launched jalapeño-cheddar sandwich crackers.

The pepper’s proliferation is part of a larger trend in hot and spicy flavors, said David Sprinkle, publisher of Rockville, Md.-based research firm Packaged Facts.

“The trend is at once international and generational,” Sprinkle said. “Millenials are more multicultural both in heritage and in outlook and, as part of that generational profile, are more drawn to bold and spicy foods, including flavors from Mexico, India and East Asia, among other parts of the globe.”

Jalapeños in particular present multiple opportunities for food manufacturers.

“Jalapeños, and now chipotle, or smoked jalapeños, from neighboring Mexico are among the most familiar expressions of the hot and spicy culinary trend in the US, and thus make sense for major food manufacturers who want to kick up the flavor profiles of their products without giving up too much mainstream and inter-generational appeal,” Sprinkle said. “And it doesn’t hurt that chiles and peppers in packaged foods are a quick, low-cost and low-calorie way to add zest to meals and snacks for consumers who aren’t going to be spending a lot of time in the kitchen slicing, dicing, simmering and stirring up sauces.”

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