It's getting hot

“Oh no, the waiter took the Tabasco sauce away,” he sighed, shifting in the sleek black leather booth next to me. I replied, “just ask for it back.” The waiter returned the Tabasco sauce to us and my date eagerly uncapped the bottle and started shaking the hot sauce into his $12 craft cocktail of gin, mint, lime and soda. He offered me a sip and I took a gulp.

Image credit: J. TaBEAU © 2013

Image credit: J. TaBEAU © 2013

I enjoyed the spiced-up gin cocktail. Recently I’ve been beginning to like the heat-factor and started to notice the growing choices available to me.

Blue Diamond’s Bold Sriracha flavored almonds, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Popeye’s limited edition Ghost Pepper Wings, McDonalds’s Bacon Habanero Ranch Quarter Pounder, the list of new spicy food options goes on. Even Starbucks started stocking their stores with Sriracha packets so customers can spice-up their breakfast sandwiches.

A spokeswoman for 7-Eleven, Margaret Chabris, told the Chicago Tribune that, "Flamin' Hot Cheetos was a groundbreaking flavor profile when it was originally introduced,” and that, “the 'hot' flavor profile continues to be a top performer for 7-Eleven stores.”

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The burning question remains: why has there been such an uptrend in spicy foods on the market and why do we keep feeding the fire?

Spice isn’t like other tastes, in fact, it’s not even categorically one (those would be sour, sweet, salty, and bitter). So what is it? The chemical that produces the hot sensation in the mouth is called capsaicin. It’s found in all hot peppers. That burning sensation in your mouth when you eat it is because it binds to the same receptors that alert your brain to thermal pain.

But what makes us want to experience this pain?

Back in the 1980s, Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania performed a number of studies to understand why some people prefer spicy foods. Rozin stated in one paper that eating chilis likens to riding a roller coaster; and that these activities are considered thrill-seeking, but at a known, constrained risk.

In a more recent study, published in 2013, John Hayes and Nadia Byrnes at Pennsylvania State University showed that people with adventure-seeking and exploration tendencies were six times more likely to enjoy the burn of spicy food. “We expected that subjects who reported liking the burn would eat more spicy food and that’s what we found,” Byrnes said,
“we also expected those who reported eating more would have lower burn intensity, but we didn’t find any evidence of that.”

This personality trait doesn’t explain the rise in abundance of spicy foods, but the impact that millennials have on the consumer market could.

According to Jeff Fromm, a millennial marketing expert and Forbes contributor, the spending power of the Millennial Generation is estimated to be about one trillion dollars, with millennials making up about 21 percent of purchases of nonessential goods. Millennials make up about a quarter of the U.S. population and according to the U.S. Census Bureau are born between 1982 and 2000. Companies are looking to target the millennial generation’s preferences because of such a huge spending power.

Eventbrite is the world’s largest self-service ticketing program and “brings the world together through live experiences.” The company recently completed an online poll that showed that 78 percent of millennials would rather spend money on experiences rather than consumer goods. This creates an experience economy with its own currency of events that this generation partakes in.

“They want to take in everything the world has to offer and so experience currency could be everything from skydiving to mud runs to flavor adventures,” said Fromm, “it’s all part of the experience economy that millennials participate in.”

A report from Barkley, a U.S. advertising agency, and the Boston Consulting Group, showed that 69 percent of millennials say they crave adventure, but that they crave a “safer” adventure. And a 2013 report by Chicago-based restaurant market research firm Technomic showed that for the first time the majority of people of all ages reported they liked food to be spicy. Fromm suggested that the trend, “is in part influenced by millennials, but its also influenced by consumers who are older who see millennials enjoying food that’s healthy and flavorful.”

Mary Chapman, Senior Director of Product Innovation at Technomic, said, “when we look at menus we can see that restaurant operators are responding in kind of an interesting way and instead of calling a flavor spicy, they’re calling out the actual pepper… people’s interest has grown so much that they recognize what those peppers are and the level of heat that they represent.”

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Millennials are also a generation that craves instant gratification. In the same report produced by Barkley – the majority reported this is every aspect of their lives – from food shopping to apartment hunting. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project’s study on the hyperconnected lives of millennials also supports this idea. The study found that one negative side effect for those under 35 who live in the hyperconnected world is a need for instant gratification.  

Consumers of all generations will continue to add fuel to the flame by dining on these foods so that they can kick their flavor experience up a notch instantly. And unlike those extreme thrills, they can still satisfy their craving for adventure while avoiding those pesky waiver forms.