The Heat Is On Warm front dominates new food trends

September 29, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

In case you haven't noticed, things are really heating up out there.

Not in the temperature, which is showing its first fall declines, but on the grocery shelves, where flavors like paprika, cayenne and jalapeno pepper are adding fire to foods as diverse as potato chips and crackers, condiments, canned tomatoes and coatings for baked chicken.

"It's a paradigm shift," says Dave DeWitt, editor of Chili Pepper magazine in Albuquerque, N.M. "It's a totally new way for Americans to eat. We've seen it growing for about two decades, gradually -- but it's really building now." In the past few years, hot and spicy ingredients have shown up in everything from drinks ** to snacks to desserts, Mr. DeWitt says. "Major manufacturers are just beginning to catch on."

Among the newer products from big producers are Cheez-It Hot & Spicy snack crackers, which have been on store shelves since April. Alexander Nichols, director of marketing services for Sunshine Biscuit Inc., of Woodbridge, N.J., says, "Basically, we looked at trends in various food categories to see what was au courant, and in the condiment area, the more positive-trending items seemed to be salsas."

The crackers are flavored with paprika, jalapenos and red pepper. "They're good, if you like hot flavors," Mr. Nichols says. "It has what I call an afterglow in your mouth."

Condiments and side dishes are also prime candidates for turning up the heat. "We've been doing spicy black-bean salads and guacamole dips with jalapenos for a while now," says Katherine Newell Smith, of the Rockville-based Sutton Place Gourmet, an upscale market, gourmet carryout and restaurant, which has a store in Pikesville.

Products with Jamaican "jerk" spices, which can be extremely hot and spicy, have been gaining popularity in the last two years, she says. "People are becoming more open to trying spices. Ten years ago, they'd say, 'Curry? What's that? Cumin? No thanks.' "

L But these days the motto is "Just say yes" to spicy flavors.

Another major player making tracks for the hot lane is Heinz U.S.A., which has just introduced Salsa-Style Ketchup in two strengths: medium and mild. Flavored with onions, green peppers and jalapeno peppers, the product is designed, Heinz says, "to satisfy Americans' growing appetite for more tangy and robust flavors in everyday foods."

Statistics prove that hot-stuff sales are heating up. According to Information Resources, Inc., a marketing-research company based in Chicago, supermarket sales of Mexican sauces, including salsas, and taco sauces rose 12 percent in 1992 over 1991. In dollar terms, American consumers bought $632 million-worth of such products last year. Sales of hot sauces, such as Tabasco and Cajun-style sauces, were up 8 percent in 1992, to $64 million. And one of the newest products, Planters Heat Hot Spicy Peanuts, a product that didn't exist a year ago, sold $3 million worth just in the second quarter of this year.

"We just looked at some trends, and found that the growth in Tex-Mex foods is pretty astronomical," says Dave DiMarco, product manager for Planters Heat. Planters considered the hot and spicy flavors of the Southwest a "perfect marriage" with peanuts, he says, but the response has surprised even Planters. "We had thought that in parts of the Southwest and Southeast, where Tex-Mex foods are more prevalent, it would move a little faster. But it's really moving well everywhere."

Surprising as the massive change in tastes may be, there's really no mystery about why the heat is on now. Manufacturers and industry-group representatives say three major factors are spicing up the food industry these days.

Immigration shifts

One is immigration patterns that have brought more people from Latin America and Asia, and have broadened the culinary horizons of the country as a whole. Salsas -- it means "sauce" in Spanish -- and Sichuan seasoning, as a result, are entering the mainstream for more and more food shoppers.

"The population is becoming much more ethnic, and that's being reflected in tastes," says Jeffrey Nedelman, vice president for communications for the Washington-based Grocery Manufacturers of America. "By the year 2000, Spanish-Americans and Orientals will be a large part of the buying public."

A joint study for the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute and Prevention magazine early this year found that 26 percent of shoppers are eating more "ethnic" food than they were three years ago.

Among those who say they eat ethnic foods, 39 percent eat Italian food other than pizza; 21 percent eat Mexican food; 18 percent eat Chinese food; and 5 percent eat Cajun food -- all about once a week.

Mr. Nichols, of Sunshine, speculates that spicier foods are just the thing to juice up jaded palates. "People are getting tired of the same-old same-old," he says; they're looking for new taste treats. "Americans as a group are more venturesome today than . . . 20 or 30 years ago."

Low-fat, low-salt, but spicier

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