While Bob’s Processing Inc., South Haven, Mich., may be best-known for its smoked pulled pork, hand-made culinary-inspired sausages and thick-cut bacon, the family-owned butcher often cannot keep its sweet heat barbecue sauce in stock. The house-made condiment is sold refrigerated in 18-oz tubs and features the sweetness of brown sugar, molasses, and pineapple and orange juices along with heat from chipotle and habanero peppers.

Such layering of flavors is trending in all food and beverage. When it comes to meat and poultry, sweet with heat complements the umami and salty tastes in a balanced way. It also presents the consumer with a familiar way to explore flavor sensations.

Explore and experiment

Research shows that consumers are more open to trying new flavors when they’re combined with a food they would typically eat, according to Mintel, Chicago. This is often some form of spicy, which is a subjective term that encompasses the heat of chilis (from capsaicin content), as well as the pungent organic compounds associated with ingredients such as cinnamon, garlic, ginger, horseradish, mustard and even onion.

Today’s consumers’ insatiable appetite for everything spicy has put innovators on the hot seat to create products that satisfy cravings. It is a balancing act, and that is part of what is fueling the ongoing sweet-heat trend. Such combinations are described by Wixon Inc., St. Francis, Wis., “as next-level favorite flavors.” It’s all about being grounded in a familiar flavor and then giving it some unexpected kick.

“The new flavor is not only tasty, but it’s not as intimidating to try,” said Ryan Kukuruzovic, corporate chef at Wixon. “Balancing pairings of the familiar with the unexpected can inject excitement and ensure greater likelihood of consumer acceptance. One of my favorites is black garlic tamarind citrus. The sweet and savory notes have an earthy fruitiness. We use it in snacks, sauces and to flavor proteins.”

Lime is one of the most common citrus flavors to get paired with heat. Other options include grapefruit, lemon and orange. On the tropical side, mango, pineapple and tamarind combine well with heat, too.

Taking risks when dining out

Consumers often feel less intimidated with trying new flavors when they are away from home. It’s less of a commitment when ordering for one, and if it’s not satisfying, it’s easy to order something else. Research from Datassential, Chicago, showed 62% of diners like or love spicy flavors or foods. In response, spicy chicken sandwiches now appear on more than half (55%) of quick-service menus, according to Datassential Menu Trends 2021.

Using Frank’s RedHot Stingin’ Honey Garlic Sauce, Chester’s Chicken, Birmingham, Ala., a fresh fried chicken quick-service restaurant concept with 1,200 locations, added sweet heat to its menu this summer with Chester’s Honey Stung Chicken in sandwich and bite formats. Chester’s signature specially marinated, double-breaded and fried fresh chicken gets “sauced and tossed” in the sauce.

The new limited-time offering followed Chester’s spring 2022 rollout of Hot N Spicy Poultry Rub. The proprietary seasoning gets paired with Chester’s Hot N Spicy Breading to increase heat and flavor on its bone-in chicken and all-white-meat extra-large tenders.

For the uber adventurous diner, Arby’s offered the Diablo Dare Challenge earlier this year. The Diablo Dare is a sandwich so spicy that it includes a free vanilla shake to cool the mouth between bites. It combined heat from five sources of spice: ghost pepper jack cheese, fiery hot seasoning, fire-roasted jalapenos and diablo barbecue sauce served on a toasted red chipotle bun with choice of 13-hour smoked brisket or crispy chicken.

Diablo, which translates to devil, is Arby’s barbecue sauce that packs in the heat from cayenne, chili, chipotle and habanero peppers. The fiery hot seasoning is made-up of cayenne red peppers, habanero powder and capsicum.

diablo 2 smaller.jpgArby's Diablo Dare sandwich comes with a free vanilla shake to cool the mouth between bites. (Source: Arby's)


What’s capsicum?

All chilis belong to the genus Capsicum, with each chili pepper possessing unique tastes and aromas because of the varying combination of the hundreds of different chemical compounds found in them. It is the odorless, tasteless, crystalline chemical compound known as capsaicin that stimulates nerve endings in the mouth and skin, triggering production of a neurotransmitter that signals the brain that the body is in pain, specifically because it is on fire. Not only is it inherently in chilis, but it is also available as an isolated ingredient and the compound for making foods fiery.

The concentration of capsaicin, which is referred to as the chili’s pungency, is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) using high-performance liquid chromatography. Pure capsaicin tops out the Scoville scale at 16 million SHUs. To perfect the combination of flavor and heat from chilis, it’s all about managing capsaicin levels to allow the flavor of spices and chili peppers to be tasted. And, with some chilis, heat may come on fast, while with others, it may be slow. Some strike and vanish. Others linger.

The Carolina Reaper is among the world’s hottest chilis, averaging 1.64 million SHUs, with some peaking at almost 2.2 million SHUs. While the pepper is said to have a fruity aroma and flavor, most tastebuds never get the chance to taste it. Bell peppers, on the other hand, which are also part of the Capsicum genus, lack capsaicin. They score zero on the Scoville scale. This is why the bell pepper’s flavor is fully tasted and is noticeably different between the different colored cultivars.

That milkshake Arby’s gave out with the Diablo Dare helps solubilize the capsaicin, allowing for more flavor to come through. This is because capsaicin is soluble in fat.

Hot ones 3 smaller.jpgSource: John Soules Foods


Other forms of heat

Another common form of heat comes from allyl isothiocyanate, a colorless compound found in mustard, horseradish and wasabi. It functions differently than capsaicin. Rather than exciting nerves in the mouth, it produces vapors that stimulate nasal passages. Because allyl isothiocyanate is not oil-based, the burning may easily be cleansed by consuming more of any food or liquid.

Kimchi and gochujang are two Asian flavors that may provide kick to meat and poultry. Kimchi is a fermented cabbage side dish that delivers a salty, spicy, fermented flavor with notes of garlic and onion, while gochujang is a thick pepper paste that has a kick of heat and a touch of sweetness from rice syrup.

“Kimchi and gochujang can be used in so many ways,” said, Hernan Angarita, culinary innovation and applications manager, Kerry, Beloit, Wis. “Kimchi goes well with American barbecue, for example.”

Farmer Focus smallerest.jpgSource: Farmer Focus


What’s for dinner?

What consumers get when they dine out, they eventually want to be able to enjoy in the comfort of their own home. This craving for heat is something that John Soules Foods, Tyler, Texas, and FoodStory Brands, Phoenix, hopes to fulfill with the launch of Hot Ones Boneless Chicken Bites. This is a co-branding venture with “First We Feast,” an online food-culture magazine and YouTube channel. The line rolled out in August in Walmart’s freezer aisle and will soon debut at other retailers. The bites come in 18.6 oz resealable bags with a Hot Ones sauce packet. The five varieties are Original (classic Hot Ones sauce), Spicy Garlic (classic sauce with garlic), Barbacoa (Los Calientes barbacoa sauce), Smoky Sweet (Los Calientes verde sauce) and Smoky Habanero (Los Calientes rojo sauce).

Harrisonburg, Va.-based Farmer Focus, has added Zesty Peruvian to its line of pre-seasoned, value-added organic chicken breast. The spice blend features lime, paprika, cumin, tomato and coriander. There’s also a new Rich Red Curry offering. This chicken features a sweet and savory mix of red pepper, ginger and garam masala.

Some consumers prefer to manage the level of spiciness in their foods. This is particularly true for consumers who must manage sodium intake. In response to this preference, the premium spicy seasoning category is growing.

P.K. Kinder Co. Inc., Walnut Creek, Calif., for example, developed a line of no-salt spicy seasonings designed to bring on big flavor with zero sodium. The company has a lemon pepper offering, which is a combination that has long been used to trick the taste buds into tasting amplified flavor without sodium. The new blackened option gets a kick from cayenne and a sour burst from lemon. The taco blend features smoky spices and chili and finishes with a hint of lime. There’s also a barbecue blend with paprika, garlic and spices with the sweetness of brown sugar.

“Zero salt doesn’t have to mean zero taste,” said Cari Kwong, vice president of marketing. “We’ve built in layers of flavor to our no salt seasonings, providing home cooks following low-sodium diets with tasty blends they can use to make delicious meals for themselves and their families.”

This past summer, Kraft Heinz Co., Chicago and Philadelphia, introduced a first-of-its-kind condiment to elevate the burger eating experience. New Heinz Dip & Crunch is a dual-compartment dome-style package, with one part containing a sauce and the other some crisp potato crunchers. There are two varieties of sauce, one providing more kick than the other. The original is made with tomato puree, molasses, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic powder, tamarind concentrate, onion powder and spices. The spicy option adds a dimension of heat.

On the snacking side, San Francisco, Calif.-based 4505 Meats, teamed up with Tajín, a popular Mexican seasoning brand, to add Chile Limón Chicharrones to its pork rinds snacking line. Other spicy flavors in the line include classic chili, jalapeno cheddar and “en fuego,” which means “on fire.” And Old Wisconsin, Sheboygan, Wis., added Hot & Spicy Sausage Sticks to its meat snack offerings. They are heated up with a blend of jalapeno, serrano and red peppers.

The meat-alternative space is embracing the trend, too. Planet Partnership LLC, a joint venture between Beyond Meat Inc., El Segundo, Calif., and PepsiCo Inc., Purchase, NY, now offers Beyond Meat Jerky. One of the flavors is Hot & Spicy. And Springdale Ark., based Tyson Foods has a spicy option in its Raised & Rooted plant-based nuggets.