Last October, more than 80 competitors gathered inside the food court at Toronto’s Eaton Centre for the second annual “ghost-pepper burrito-eating contest.” They were mostly local men in their 20s and 30s, but there were also a few young women, a Texan, a New Yorker and Jamie “the Bear” McDonald, the reigning champion from Granby, Conn. Standing six foot two and weighing 200 lb., the professional eater, chef and bodybuilder took the $2,500 grand prize again after eating 5½ “hotter than hell” burritos in eight minutes.
It was an incredible feat, given that each foot-long burrito contained tongue-searing ghost-pepper-flavoured bacon, ghost-pepper-infused fig marmalade and ghost-pepper sauce—along with rice, beans, hot salsa and meat. The ghost pepper, or bhut jolokia, is one of the spiciest foods in the world, measuring in at one million Scoville heat units—just less than U.S.-grade pepper spray. (The jalapeno tops out somewhere between 3,500 and 8,000 units.) All contestants signed waivers before taking a bite, and several “couldn’t keep the food down,” says Norman Pickering, director of marketing for Mucho Burrito, the fast food chain that hosted the event, adding that paramedics were on site “in case of choking or fainting.”
The competition may sound too extreme for the average heat seeker, but Pickering says demand for ghost-pepper burritos boosted the chain’s same-store sales “in the high single digits” throughout the fall, when the item was available as a limited-time offer. “We saw consumers seeking unique, flavourful, spicy food. [We decided that] if we were going to do something hot, let’s make it as hot as possible. And it definitely produced results above and beyond what we expected.”
In fact, more and more businesses are cashing in on the growing demand among North American consumers for fiery foods. As part of this spice boom, Subway launched its Sriracha Steak Melt, featuring the brand of hot chili sauce made in Irwindale, Calif. (Scoville measurement: 2,200 units; devotees panicked recently when a California court ordered Sriracha production halted due to “offensive” odours emanating from its factory.) McDonald’s recently unveiled its Spicy Thai McBistro Chicken Sandwich, which contains a hot sauce with dried chilis. Tim Hortons sells jalapeno bagels and biscuits. And Boston Pizza is offering customers their choice of Jalapeno and Crispy Onion Prime Rib Burger, Chipotle Chicken Club or Spicy Perogy burger or pizza. Almost any hot food seems popular lately; according to EuroMonitor, sales of herbs and spices hit $283 million in 2012, compared to $212 million five years earlier.
“It is absolutely a big trend,” says Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at Technomic, a research and consulting firm based in Chicago, which listed hot foods among the five biggest restaurant trends for the year ahead. Technomic’s 2013 Canadian Flavour Consumer Trend Report revealed that, for the first time since it started conducting the survey in 2009, more than half of all individuals aged 18 to 55 said they want very or extremely spicy foods, especially sauces, dips and condiments. What constitutes hot is also “increasing along the heat spectrum,” she says. “Things tend to get more extreme. Where we’ve seen a lot of jalapenos and chipotles, maybe we’ll see more habaneros and ghost peppers.”
So far, Mucho Burrito claims to be the first and only Canadian food chain to have the courage to feature the ghost pepper on its menu. But hot foods are making their way into restaurants, grocery stores and home kitchens at a furious rate. “If you had gone into a supermarket 25 years ago, you might have been able to find 30 spicy things. Now you can find hundreds of them,” says Dave DeWitt, a food historian, author and chili aficionado based in Albuquerque, N.M. Where spicy foods used to come down to hot sauces and salsas, now consumers can purchase hot popcorn, jalapeno sauerkraut, chipotle and cinnamon jam, habanero caramels and ground-chili blends to rim margarita glasses.
The ever-expanding selection of spicy ingredients coincides with a popular focus among health- and weight-conscious consumers to improve their diets while incorporating variety into every meal. “It’s a terrific way to add flavour without adding salt and fats,” says Chapman. Although DeWitt cautions that some hot sauces contain a lot of salt, he notes that chilis are extremely rich in vitamin C. Recent studies have also suggested that capsaicin, which gives hot peppers their kick, may lower blood pressure, boost metabolism, improve mood by provoking the release of endorphins, and even kill lung and pancreatic cancer cells. Heat is also in demand among aging demographics, especially Boomers, since an individual’s sense of smell wanes after age 60. (The sensation of flavour is actually produced by sensory nerve cells in the nose, mouth and throat, which collaboratively transmit messages to the brain.) The Technomic flavour survey revealed a spike in demand for spicy condiments among the 55-plus crowd: Forty per cent craved heat in 2011, compared to 51 per cent this year.
There is also broadening appeal and availability of ethnic cuisines, especially Latin American and Asian, which often showcase spice. “I definitely think there’s less trepidation, and that people are more open to trying different flavours,” says Canadian celebrity chef Roger Mooking, who starred in the Food Network’s Heat Seekers. But perhaps the biggest reason for the rise of spicy foods has been a shift upmarket in the way they’re presented in stores and on TV—as a serious foodie ingredient, not just a freaky obsession. “North American marketing used to be about the spectacle of heat,” says Mooking. “Now we’re starting to understand the cultural relevance of chilis in different parts of the world.” He says that each spicy pepper has its own flavour profile—“some are fruity, some are citrusy, some are bright and open, some are just pure, raw heat”—and that consumers are beginning to know the differences and incorporate that into their approach to cooking and eating. “People are respecting [the chili] as an ingredient, not just for shock and awe, but that can be appreciated.”
That is to say, eating hot peppers is now more a sign of culinary enlightenment than masochism. “From what I see with the new products coming out, a lot of them have calmed down. They’re not pitching, ‘This is going to rip your guts out or make you have diarrhea!’ ” says DeWitt. “It’s more, ‘Enhance your food in more ways than you ever thought possible.’ It’s a much more gentle approach.” At least on the label.