America’s love affair with fiery flavors heats up winter menus

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Remember the big American Sriracha Shortage of 2023? That tragedy wasn’t just a fluke but a bold marker of the country’s growing passion for spicy foods. Evidence of this steamy love affair has been simmering for years — seen in skyrocketing sales of zippy hot sauces, spicy snack foods and even chili-spiked chocolate. The trend reaches fever pitch in the winter when you’ll find spicy ingredients showcased in everything from Mardi Gras feasts to Super Bowl snacks and even Valentine’s Day desserts.

A close-up of a woman's mouth indulging in the spicy food trend with a red chili.
Americans’ love of spicy food is growing and it reaches fever pitch in the winter months. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Americans want heat

A quick glance at supermarket shelves shows this trend in action. You’ll find them crammed with hot sauces, spicy salad dressings and amped-up snacks like Frito Lay’s Ruffles Flamin’ Hot Cheddar & Sour Cream Chips. Frito Lay reported an impressive 12% growth in the spicy snack category between 2018 and 2022, indicating that consumers want spicier flavors. Snack food companies are quickly adapting to meet this fiery demand with creative products like Flamin’ Hot Mountain Dew and Doritos Smoky Chile Queso Dinamita Sticks. 

A generation’s zest for spice

As with most trends, it’s the young people — Millennials and Gen Zs — who are driving the demand for more adventurous flavors. Social media is fueling this taste preference as younger generations look to online platforms for food recommendations. According to Nestlé USA, 80% of Gen Zs have tried a food or flavor they saw online, which explains how many are discovering unconventional ways to enjoy spice.

Cucumber kimchi, a staple in the Korean diet, is a spicy dish that has gained global popularity over social media. This traditional fermented dish, made with heaps of Korean chili flakes called “gochugaru,” has won hearts all over the internet. Americans are being exposed to new ways of eating spice as people from different cultural backgrounds share their traditional recipes.

Spicy contenders on the menu

Obsessive fan bases have formed around spicy condiments like chili paste, Sriracha, harissa paste and chili crisp. You’ll find these key ingredients in dishes like harissa chicken, a Tunisian dish with a delicious combination of smokey and spicy flavors. 

“America’s palate is evolving, and the growing love for spicy foods reflects our increasing appreciation for bold and diverse flavors,” says JD Alewine, a sushi chef in Asheville, North Carolina, and owner of the food blog Them Bites. “The sriracha shortage of 2023 is a testament to the sauce’s popularity, as consumers nationwide seek to add an extra kick to their culinary experiences.” 

Americans are discovering how spicy condiments can elevate everyday foods — and they’re putting them on everything. “One thing is certain when it comes to Americans’ food preferences,” Instacart said when reporting findings of their 2022 hot sauce survey, “everything is better with hot sauce. From sandwiches and burritos to soups and eggs, these foods and many more in between are arguably better with a little heat.” Spicy ingredients are being used beyond traditional Asian or Latin American dishes, too, reflecting a broader acceptance of heat in the American diet. 

A winter season spiced to perfection

The winter season, especially February, is a peak time for spicy food consumption. It’s when spice sizzles its way into food-centric celebrations like the Superbowl, Lunar New Year, Mardi Gras and Valentine’s Day.

Football fans get heated up as they root for their team in the Superbowl, and fans are fueling the fire with hot sauce. Instacart’s survey found that hot sauce purchases spiked nearly 50% during the week of football’s biggest game in February. This trend shows up in many winter celebrations beyond sports, too.

This year many Asian cultures will celebrate the start of the Year of Dragon for Lunar New Year, and spicy food seems like an appropriate way to honor the fire-breathing symbol of power and strength. You can expect dan dan noodles to be a part of the festive meal. Cooked with mouth-tingling Sichuan peppers and Five-Spice Powder, it may have you breathing fire by the end of the meal. 

Mardi Gras is widely celebrated in New Orleans, Louisiana, with traditional Cajun dishes like jambalaya and gumbo. The inherently spicy nature of Cajun cooking, once a regional preference, is now gaining widespread popularity well beyond Louisiana. The emergence of Viet-Cajun cuisine and the new Cajun dipping sauce on the menu at McDonald’s prove that people want flavorful food with a kick.

Even Valentine’s Day lends an opportunity to celebrate with a dose of heat. Chocolates with fiery ingredients like cinnamon, ginger and chili peppers offer an adventurous twist to traditional romantic treats.

From home kitchens to nationwide chains

At home, more people are reaching for zingy ingredients like Sichuan peppercorns, a mouth-numbing spice integral to the popular Chinese takeout dish salt and pepper chicken. Consumers are not shy about their spice preference; Grubhub’s 2023 report showed that 53 million items ordered included spicy elements. National chains like California Pizza Kitchen are reacting to this demand by releasing hotter products like the Hot Honey Croissant Crust Pizza.

Diversity and neuroscience are driving the trend

Cultural diversity and the brain’s reaction to bold flavors are two factors contributing to the spicy food trend. Nestlé USA’s 2024 food trend report found that the influence of non-Western cuisines, which often contain more spice, has led to the rising popularity of spicy food. 

Physiologically, the allure of spicy food has to do with how the brain reacts to spice. Peppers contain capsaicin, a natural chemical that triggers a release of endorphins, hormones that relieve stress, reduce pain and can create the feeling of euphoria commonly known as runner’s high. 

Spreading the heat in the food industry

The spice phenomenon is here to stay, with the hot sauce market projected to grow from $3.09 billion in 2023 to $5.09 billion by 2030. Future food marketing and product development will focus on capturing this flavor preference through unique spicy offerings. There is no doubt that new products will enter this space and catch fire online, thanks to the power of social media.  

Spicy food is heating things up in the U.S.

America is embracing spicy food on a large scale. Look for the extra-hot Hungarian goathorn pepper, which Whole Foods named one of their Top 10 Food Trends for 2024, coming soon to a grocery store near you. From spicy crispy beef, a fan favorite in Chinese restaurants, to new fiery snack flavors and hot sauce obsessions, there is no sign of this trend fizzling out anytime soon.

Robin Donovan is the author of more than 40 cookbooks, including the bestselling Campfire Cuisine, Ramen Obsession, and Ramen for Beginners. A food writer, recipe developer, and food photographer, she is the creator of the food blog All Ways Delicious, where she shares easy recipes for the best dishes from around the world.

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