In Search of Latin Heat

Latin American flavor influence grows as demand for spicy flavors rise

At a campaign stop in 1976 at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, President Gerald Ford tried to eat a tamale without first removing the husk – he literally picked up a wrapped tamale and bite right into it. We now read about what became known as the “Great Tamales Incident” and chuckle, but at that time most Americans weren’t as familiar with Latin American food. While most Texans had already embraced these flavors, their trailblazing tastes driven by the state’s proximity to the Mexican border, Ford had grown up in Michigan and he had likely never seen tamale before.

Fast-forward to today and take a look at how far Latin American flavors have come in the U.S.:

  • In the National Restaurant Association 2016 Culinary Forecast, 58% of 1,600 chefs surveyed said Latin American flavors would be a hot trend for the year. While 28% responded that Latin American flavors were a perennial favorite.
  • Menu penetration for the Latin American category has doubled in the past four years in certain segments. In fact, statistics show a 108% growth for Fast Casual and 96% for QSR .
  • Latin American menu items grew 7.3% over the past five years according to Technomic .

These numbers show a convincing increase in menus embracing more Latin flavors. It’s a trend that offers a bold opportunity to develop new menu items. But in order to be successful in leveraging this trend, we need to know what’s behind this growth and have a firm grasp on the intricacies of Latin Heat.

Latin Flavor Growth Mirrors Population Growth

Much of the growth in awareness and enjoyment of Latin American flavors in the U.S. can be attributed to a steady increase in the Hispanic population. The U.S. Census Bureau 2014 Population Estimates put the Hispanic population in the U.S. at 55 million, which is 17% of our nation’s total population. By comparison, the Hispanic population in was less than a quarter of this number. Future Census projections see the Hispanic population becoming over 24% of the nation’s population by the year 2050. As a result, authentic and more diverse Latin American flavors will continue to be in demand.

Of course, when you offer items with Latin flavors you aren’t just targeting a Hispanic customer, it’s become a pervasive craving that goes beyond nationality and locality. With an increase in a Hispanic population comes and increase in the availability of ingredients and with that flavors. Combine that with the explosion as food entertainment, which has emboldened pallets across multiple generations, and you start to understand why Latin Heat continues to have an increasing presence on our menus.

Latin America hasn’t exactly cornered the market on spicy heat. You don’t have to look any further than the boom of Siracha with it’s Thai origins to recognize that spicy heat is on the rise from a myriad of origins. But I think that distinctly Latin American heat will continue to lead the category.

Chili Peppers Lead the Charge

One thing to remember is that while Mexico is a big influence on food here in the states, Latin America is more than Mexico. It also spans Central and South America and countries in the Caribbean – it’s Brazil, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela, and about a dozen more nations.

When sampling Latin American food, you’ll find the flavors and ingredients as varied as the countries it embodies. But one of the pervasive profiles in this category is Latin heat, which is infused into foods through chili peppers. If you think Latin heat won’t go over well with your guests, consider that a vast majority of people (78%) do like at least moderately spicy foods (Technomic 2015 Flavor Consumer Trend Report).

When thinking about Latin heat, salsa is sure to come to mind.

When thinking about Latin heat, salsa is sure to come to mind. And salsa was one of the early chili pepper products that appealed to the U.S. palate. Thanks to the chili pepper, salsa could be made mild, it could be medium, or it could be hot. So each person could easily find a taste that was “just right” for them.

Salsa started gaining traction in the 1980s and it continued to increase, culminating in a surprise in the food world when salsa knocked ketchup out of the top spot and was named the best-selling condiment in the United States for the year 1991. This was at a time when consumers were being made more aware of the rich Latin American culture. Gloria Estefan’s album “Into the Light” was heading toward double platinum. Miami Vice had brought a stylized look at a Latin-influenced area of the U.S. into living rooms. And Madonna had released a hit Latin pop song and music video. The rich and colorful heritage of Latin American was beginning to be seen in music, on television – and on our plates.

When thinking about Latin heat, salsa is sure to come to mind. And salsa was one of the early chili pepper products that appealed to the U.S. palate. Thanks to the chili pepper, salsa could be made mild, it could be medium, or it could be hot. So each person could easily find a taste that was “just right” for them.

Salsa started gaining traction in the 1980s and it continued to increase, culminating in a surprise in the food world when salsa knocked ketchup out of the top spot and was named the best-selling condiment in the United States for the year 1991. This was at a time when consumers were being made more aware of the rich Latin American culture. Gloria Estefan’s album “Into the Light” was heading toward double platinum. Miami Vice had brought a stylized look at a Latin-influenced area of the U.S. into living rooms. And Madonna had released a hit Latin pop song and music video. The rich and colorful heritage of Latin American was beginning to be seen in music, on television – and on our plates.

Latin America hasn’t exactly
cornered the market on spicy heat

Around this time, I was in grade school in a small town in south Louisiana, but I remember many after-school snacks comprised of salsa and chips. I was born in the heart of Cajun country so I was used to heat and spice, but the salsa taste combination of tomatoes, onions, lime, cilantro and chili peppers, was something new and different. I liked it, and it seems that most of America liked it too. The country had moved from the President of the United States being confounded by a tamale, to everyday people consuming salsa by the jarful.

Growing Interest in Different Levels of Heat

Today it’s obvious that salsa wasn’t a fad. It’s still incredibly popular and among operators who have Latin American items on their menu it’s the top Latin ingredient served (2016 Technomic MenuMonitor Report). But now you’re seeing people shake up their salsa recipes, often by using chili peppers other than the jalapeno. Tastes are evolving toward more complex flavor combinations and a wider variety of peppers (Technomic 2015 Flavor Consumer Trend Report).

Personally, in dishes I prepare at home, I gravitate between the jalapeno and the poblano, as I find them both to be flexible peppers which lend well to a lot of applications, but there are thousands of types of chili peppers cultivated worldwide. And since peppers are fairly easy to grow, they’re often seen in home gardens. In fact, chili peppers rank as the 8th most popular home grown vegetable (National Gardening Association 2014 Survey).

I went to an online seed catalog and sorted the hot pepper seeds by “most popular” to get an idea of what people were buying for their gardens. Of course, this is only one source, but this should give us a look into the variety of peppers available. At the time of writing, these were the top results with Scoville ratings, which measures hotness:

1. Jalapeno – 7,500 heat
2. Red Cayenne – 40,000 heat
3. Pepperoncini – 500 heat
4. Habanero Orange – 200,000 heat
5. Anaheim Chili – 50,000 heat

6. Ancho Grande – 2,000 heat
7. Poblano – 2,000 heat
8. Serrano Tampiqueno – 20,000 heat
9. Tabasco – 5,000 heat
10. Habanero Red Caribbean–200,000 heat

That list has a lot of heat on it! Another pepper offered in this seed catalog is the Yellow Devil which comes in at a 500,000 heat rating. (I’m sweating just reading that number.)

But here’s the thing – it’s what consumers are seeking out. If they’re buying different types of chili peppers to grow, then logic says they want to have different types of chili peppers to eat. Sure the jalapeno is still a really popular pepper, but there’s a lot of variety on that list.