Mintel reports that nearly half of all US consumers consider themselves foodies.
Millennials, with their cravings for adventure, are turning the food world around.

Since its introduction in 1996, Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich quickly became a solid fan favorite, even before spicy was hot. As one of the first such offerings in quick service, the sandwich relies on the strength of the spices in the chicken fillet to deliver flavor and heat.

“Since its introduction, the recipe has remained unchanged,” says Liz Geraghty, vice president of brand marketing for the Wendy’s Co. in Dublin, Ohio. “Once people taste the sandwich, they fall under its hot and spicy spell. With its irresistible fiery blend of eight spices and peppers, this original classic has long been Wendy’s top-selling chicken sandwich.”

Recognizing that heat is definitely hot these days, this past summer the company upped the sandwich a couple notches with the limited-edition Jalapeño Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich. It featured the same spicy chicken fillet, but with the addition of ghost pepper sauce, cheese, red onion and fresh jalapeños, all sandwiched between a bakery-inspired, toasted red jalapeño bun.

Wendy’s is on track with serving what consumers crave. According to a January 2015 online survey of 1,300 US adults conducted by Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Kalsec, more than half (56 percent) of consumers eat spicy foods at least once a week, with one out of four eating spicy foods more often than a year ago.

“We learned that two out of five consumers think foods taste better with some level of heat, with two-thirds of survey respondents preferring a medium or higher heat level in foods,” says Gary Augustine, executive director of market development at Kalsec. “Although jalapeño remains the preferred chili, it is closely followed by cayenne and chipotle. Habanero, poblano, serrano and ancho are all growing in popularity.”

Craving adventure

Much of this desire for spice and heat is coming from consumers in the millennial demographic, who have an insatiable appetite for adventure.

“Millennials are not the same creatures as their parents, and they are turning the food world around,” according to Dax Schaefer, corporate executive chef and director of culinary innovation at Asenzya Inc. in Oak Creek, Wis., formerly known as Foran Spice Co. “To put it simply, they want to eat food that is new, that they can feel good about and that is a little adventurous.”

|||Read more: Formulating for foodies|||
Formulating for foodies

Indian-style cuisine, such as this chicken jalfrezi naan wrap, is growing in popularity with consumers.
Indian-style cuisine, such as this chicken jalfrezi naan wrap, is growing in popularity with consumers. (Photo: McCormick & Co.)

According to research from Chicago-based Mintel, nearly half of all US consumers consider themselves foodies.

“Satisfying hunger is not the sole purpose for today’s consumers to eat,” says Jean Shieh, marketing manager of Sensient Natural Ingredients in Turlock, Calif. “Many are looking for intriguing flavors and sensations, experiences worth sharing with social groups. For meat and poultry, seasonings and spices are great tools to provide variations of existing product lines or to introduce proteins that are less familiar to consumers.”

Adding value to protein is key. “Craft meats are becoming more popular,” Augustine says. “Consumers are looking for ways to elevate their sandwiches with new flavors and bolder tastes such as sliced luncheon meats in varieties like basil pesto chicken and rosemary with sage turkey.”

They want new flavors and convenient eating forms, but they don’t want anything artificial added. “Today’s consumers are looking for bold flavors that still deliver clean labels,” says Bruce Armstrong, research and development manager-proteins for Chicago-based LifeSpice Ingredients. “We are being challenged to deliver the umami kick of monosodium glutamate under the banner of clean.

“In most cases, we are accomplishing this with yeast extract, yet, there are customers who are resistant to yeast extract,” he says. “When this is the situation, we typically use a blend of spices that includes black, white and red peppers to deliver balanced full flavor. Adding organic acids help punch up the flavor, with natural spice extractives and natural flavors further driving flavor.”

Shieh agreed. “Consumers want premium meats with less or no additives and preservatives,” she says. Sensient now offers a proprietary, clean-label blend of natural ingredients designed to bring harmony and balance to savory seasonings. Based on a blend of vegetable powders, the ingredient is void of added monosodium glutamate, salt, gluten and any synthetic ingredients.

The desire for clean, simple and better-for-you is driving innovation in gourmet sausages, in particular poultry-based sausages, as consumers appreciate the fact that they have less saturated fat than red meat, according to Shieh. “Spicy seasonings are finding their way into these sausages, everything from buffalo to southwest,” she adds.

Stuffed burgers are also becoming more popular, especially at the meat counter of upscale supermarkets. In addition to being stuffed with ingredients such as bacon, cheese and vegetables, many include a signature spice blend. “They are burgers with a present inside,” says Lisa Stern, vice president of sales and marketing at LifeSpice. “Hardwood smoke seasonings are very popular. They are often combined with emerging ethnic blends.”

Pork has a neutral taste profile that is a great platform for flavor.
Pork has a neutral taste profile that is a great platform for flavor.

For example, za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend typically containing sesame seeds, thyme, sumac, marjoram and oregano, adds zest to beef burgers, meatballs and meatloaf.

Another emerging ethnic seasoning is ras el hanout. This Moroccan spice blend has no definitive recipe and often includes as many as 25 different spices. Recipes generally include cardamom, chilies, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, ginger, paprika, peppercorn and turmeric. Pork and poultry are common applications.

“With a steady increase in beef prices, pork chops and tenderloins are becoming popular,” Stern says. “Pork has a neutral taste profile that is a great platform for flavor. Seasonings such as mixed herb, Southwest and teriyaki continue to be popular, but as consumers’ palates become more sophisticated, there’s growing interest in more complex rubs such as ancho chili with orange, balsamic and herb, Korean barbecue, Cuban mojo and Thai coconut curry.”

Many of these flavor profiles can be incorporated into gourmet sausages. “With consumers’ renewed interest in the first meal of the day, the gourmet breakfast sausage – links and patties – category is booming,” Stern says. “We are getting requests for seasonings that include fruit flavors with savory spices, as well as different smoke profiles. One quite tasty blend is apple, honey and sage.”

Health and wellness is an unexpected twist emerging in seasonings for proteins. “Consumers are aware that turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, and other spices are associated with health and wellness, and they are seeking them out in everyday foods,” Stern says. “People are seeing that curry is not only tasty, it can be beneficial as well.”

And curries are not created equal. “Curries are no longer just red, brown or yellow, but rather red Thai coconut with kefer lime, or Nepali with green chilies, garlic, turmeric and ginger,” Stern says. “Each has its own beneficial attributes.”

Curries complement the increase in use of marinades and sauces, many with an ethnic twist. According to Kalsec research, almost one-third of consumers say they now cook marinated meats more often than they did five years ago. And spicy ethnic dishes containing protein are steadily growing in popularity.

The popularity of Indian cuisine is growing as consumers learn the depth and breadth of this particularly rich heritage, according to Shieh. “We’ve combined mirch, which is Hindi for chili pepper, with maple to create a mirch maple seasoning that delivers sweet with heat. It’s great in gourmet breakfast sausage.”

|||Read more: Understanding chili peppers|||
Understanding chili peppers

Chili peppers vary in flavor profile and heat levels.
Consumers crave more than heat — complex flavor profiles are important to adventurous foodies.

As Wendy’s learned almost 20 years ago, chili peppers are varied and versatile. They are associated with the most popular international influences in today’s food industry. Grown around the world, chilies vary in flavor profile, from earthy to fruity to smoky.

Chili peppers range in heat levels, too. The guajillo and aji panca have the least amount of heat on the Scoville scale, while the Bhut Jolokia, the ghost pepper, is recognized as one of the hottest peppers in the world.

To add authenticity to chili peppers as well as other spices used in many ethnic cuisines, Culinary Farm in Woodland, Calif., uses a smoke roasting process that mimics the cooking techniques native to many regions. The chilies come in flake, ground and paste formats and can be used in topical seasonings, marinades and rubs.

“Our products are smoked with a proprietary blend of woods with no added artificial flavors or ingredients,” says Kirk Bewley, president of Culinary Farm.

Indeed, today’s adventurous consumers crave more than heat. “Consumers are moving away from just straight-heat flavor to more complex flavor profiles, where some flavors are subtle while others are characterizing,” Augustine says. “You get this in many ethnic cuisines, where chilies are blended with fresh herbs and spices indigenous to the region.”

In response to consumer demand for more specialized heat, Kalsec is growing its specialty pepper product line with new varieties including cayenne, pasilla and ghost pepper extract. These join ancho, guajillo, habanero, jalapeño and Szechuan.

Sensient has added Indian varietals to its chili collection. The collection includes Devanur chili, a medium heat, reddish-brown chili with an earthy-nutty note; Byadgi chili, a mild heat chili, with a bright red color and a pungent, but sweet flavor profile; and Teja chili, a very hot and deep red chili with a biting flavor that gives way to an underlying sweet/fruity profile. With three different heat, color and flavor profiles, these offerings help processors deliver bold Indian flavors to meat and poultry products.

“Today’s consumers not only want to experiment with flavor, they want to know exactly where their food comes from,” says Ryan Goularte, general manager at Sensient. “These chili peppers are grown in India using careful seed selection specific to regional cuisines, which offers our customers an authentic solution for the development of genuine Indian foods.”

It takes technique

Today's consumers want to experiment with flavor.
Food provides a moderately safe way for consumers to be more adventurous in their lives.

With chilies, as well as many dried herbs and spices, large particulates suggest bold flavor to the consumer. To the processor, they remind to “proceed with caution.”

“Seasoning is an art and science rolled into one discipline,” Schaefer says. “Particle size of the seasoning is an important consideration. We work with our partners to identify the difference between a visually pleasing appearance in the finished product and a spice particulate that could potentially clog processing equipment.

“We custom grind spices, seeds and herbs, as well as dry-blend ingredients to create unique seasoning blends,” Schaefer adds.

The technical challenges of applying seasoning to meat and poultry products depend on the final product, according to Poulson Joseph, lead scientist at Kalsec. “For example, in ground products such as sausages, seasonings could be incorporated during mixing as a direct addition, while in marinated products the seasoning system has to be dispersed via brines and marinades, and further be dispersible in muscle tissues. You want consistent flavor throughout.”

The pH of the system must be considered as well, as some seasonings are very acidic. “Too much acidity can lead to undesirable protein denaturation,” Schaefer says.

With all the culinary noise out there, people are exposed to a wide variety of cuisines and cooking techniques, Schaefer notes. “They want to be a little more adventurous in their lives, and food is a moderately safe way to do it.”