Food Product Design: Applications - May 2005 - How Sweet… And Hot It Is!

May 1, 2005

13 Min Read
Food Product Design: Applications - May 2005 - How Sweet… And Hot It Is!

May 2005

How Sweet... And Hot It Is!

By Nancy BackasContributing Editor

There's nothing new about combining sweet flavors with spicy, hot sensations. Cuisines from temperate regions of the world -- Asia, Africa, Mexico, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean -- have always combined sweet and hot. And remember   the childhood favorite, Red Hots, those cinnamony-hot candies? The pleasure of sweet with the pain of hot was daring and delightful at the same time.

Today, combining sweet and hot has come of age. New products on retail shelves and dishes in restaurants everywhere combine these flavors with sophistication, balancing them in complex and subtle ways. And the Red Hots of yore have paved the way for new kids' candies that take the pain-pleasure principle to new heights.

Taste science The sweet sensation is one of the four, some would say five, tastes that also include sour, salty, bitter and the Japanese-coined taste "umami," best represented by the taste of monosodium glutamate, or what some might describe as "savory."

According to the Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, a nonprofit institute devoted to research on taste, smell and chemosensory irritation, when we taste something, we initially experience these qualities through specialized receptors on the tongue and palate. But taste is a more-complex experience than a signal passed to the brain by a taste receptor. Our olfactory receptor cells are capable of detecting hundreds, even thousands, of   chemical stimuli, greatly expanding the complexity of taste.

In addition, we have something called the trigeminal nerve, which detects and passes on a signal of irritation. That's the nerve that is stimulated when we eat something that "burns" like chile peppers or alcohol, or the "cool" sensation of menthol. This process, chemesthesis, while not exactly a flavor, is the sensation known as "hot" (like from chiles) or "cool" (like from menthol). Sense of touch also contributes to a taste experience ranging from crispness to dryness or astringency.

Of course, different people don't experience taste the same way. Genetic makeup, age, gender and cultural differences all come into play when determining how any one person tastes a particular food, as does the individual's health status (certain diseases, such as liver disease and cancer, can change flavor perception).

Women, for example, tend to be better at detecting and identifying odors than men. Elderly people have less-sensitive taste receptors and often have a greater willingness to sample unusually flavored foods, as Monell has found. And clearly people who grow up in cultures with certain taste profiles, such as Thai people, whose food is among the "hottest" in the world, have a tolerance for spicy foods.

These differences in flavor perception play a part in deciding how sweet or hot to make a product. Trying to find the right balance between sweet and hot is a challenge and depends on whether the desire is to serve a mass market, or a more-specialized market.

"There is definitely a spicier palate among Americans today, but we still have to tone-down taste for mass appeal," says Phil Katz, president, Shuster Laboratories, Inc., Canton, MA. "A lot of time is spent on what the level of hot should be. If you go over the edge, you may lose a significant portion of consumer base. Honing-in on the optimum level is something a lot of companies do before releasing a product into the marketplace." Fancy or gourmet specialty food stores, he adds, are venues where a spicier, hotter product will more likely find acceptance.

Why sweet-hot works Humans, it has been learned, have an innate taste for sweet. Even as infants, we react with pleasure to sugar solutions. That sets the sensation of sweet aside from the other sensations (sour, bitter, salty), which are culturally learned. The "hot" sensation is even more of an acquired taste. To those with a food culture rife with hot-spicy flavors, hot food is expected. For others, taking the first hot-food plunge takes an adventuresome spirit.

"If you look into different cuisines all over the world, you will find the combination of sweet and hot. Why does it work? I think it has to do with sensory stimulation," says Mariano Gascon-Figueora, flavor lab director, Wixon Inc., St. Francis, WI. "The Arndt-Schultz Law defines that a weak stimulus increases physiologic activity while a strong stimulus inhibits it. In other words, a hot (spicy) taste may produce certain stimulation while the sweet taste may produce a similar stimulation, but with a different result. Thus, they contrast each other to create a pleasant dish."

The two sensations are perceived as opposite, and they do seem to counteract each other in a way that we think of as pleasant. "It's much like chewy and crunchy together," says Katz. "Sweet and hot together appeal to us in much the same way, but in addition, sweet mitigates the hot."

The nitty gritty What ingredients actually cause that hot sensation? A number of chemicals -- really mouth irritants -- in food can cause this sometimes-painful sensation. The now well-known capsaicin found in chiles is one. Other irritants include piperine in black pepper, gingerols in ginger and isothicyanates in mustard, wasabi and horseradish. The menthol in mint oil, while it gives the sensation of coolness, is actually just a different form of the same kind of irritant.

The capsaicinoids in chile peppers are probably the most widely used to generate a hot flavor. While the Scoville heat index used to measure the "heat" level in chiles is widely known and used, it's more than heat levels that make certain chiles impart more-interesting flavors than others. It is therefore important to experiment with different chile combinations to get a good flavor match and to create a complex melding of flavors.

Chile experts also urge the use of fresh chiles to get the real flavor before going to dried or sprayed products. Other delivery systems for chiles include dried flavoring powders and sauces, as well as water-soluble and spray-dried forms. New encapsulated technology lends increased flavor stability and shelf life to chile products.

Adding sweet-hot flavors has an added benefit for many products. "We are seeing more hot spice in products where there is an effort to reduce salt and fat," says Katz. "Often these products don't taste as good as we'd like, but we want to put them out for health reasons. Sweet and hot flavors mask unpleasant flavors."

This sensory phenomenon, called "mixture suppression," a perceived decreased intensity of mixed taste compared to their intensity when unmixed given the same concentration levels, is the technological explanation for why hot foods taste less hot after adding sugar, Gascon-Figueora explains. And it is also the phenomenon behind why sweet and hot together mask flavors. Wixon has a line of flavor modifiers that perform the same task, suppressing bitterness, for example, while enhancing sweetness.

Domino Specialty Ingredients, Baltimore, makes sugar products, such as Envision® and Super Envision, that work to lower the sweetness-level perception in the mouth while still lending good texture and mouthfeel to products. These ingredients are helpful in sweet-hot applications in that they can help bring out the heat in a sauce, for example, without having to lower the sugar level and increase the product's viscosity or alter mouthfeel as gums might.

At Shuster Laboratories, sweet is added to a spicy chip to bring down the heat note, and is added to dips, salsas and meat spice rubs to balance flavors and mitigate hot notes in the product. "You don't want to fractionate the taste," says Katz. "The sweetness attribute helps create a balance."

Prepared products are also marketed to consumers to help them create simpler versions of complex flavors. In order to create a simple mole, for example, Ferrero U.S.A., Inc., Somerset, NJ, offers consumers a recipe that uses Nutella® chocolate-hazelnut spread mixed with onions and chipotle pepper in adobo sauce.

The restaurant lab To track a food trend, a good start might be to look at the influx of a particular ethnic group and the restaurants that open to serve its population. Soon, adventuresome people outside of the culture try the cuisine. Then, along comes a chef to take those traditional flavors and experiment to create something new. In terms of how flavors end up in products on our grocery shelves, the foodservice industry is frequently the precursor.

Think of the current popularity of salsa. It was big news when salsa sales started to encroach on the sales of that all-American condiment, ketchup. Mex-ican immigrants brought their spicy salsa north of the border, Mexican resta-urants became the rage and then chefs like Rick Bayless brought salsa to a new, authentic level with more-complex flavors and well-rounded combinations of the sweetness of roasted tomatoes or tomatillos with hot chiles.

The sweet-hot flavor combination, like other trends, was in the foodservice "laboratory" before the retail industry grabbed the idea and ran with it. Initially, chefs took historical pairings of sweet and hot foods and built on them. "One path is to build on culinary history, the other path is pure creativity," explains Debbie Jarretbangs, global marketing manager, International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., Dayton, NJ. She cites the example of an historic combination of pineapple and habanero pepper in Caribbean cuisine. Chefs might take that idea and put it into a salad dressing, mayonnaise or glaze. If a chef is going to take a purely creative path, they might pair blueberries and mangoes with habanero.

"This is where the idea of fusion cuisine originated, but we tired of it because so many of the executions were poor and not very well thought-out," Jarretbangs says. "This round is better because chefs have developed better expertise in fusing elements that have never been done before, but making something that is complementary."

One way that chefs have learned to meld hot and sweet flavors more effectively is by using bridging flavors, such as cardamom, coriander, cinnamon or vanilla, the so-called sweet, brown spices. Indian foods use these bridging spices in many dishes, most notably chutneys. Mexican mole is a perfect example of taking sweet and hot and bringing the two flavors together in a complex way by using ingredients like cinnamon and chocolate in a savory application.

A newer exploration of sweet and hot is in confections and desserts. The original hot chocolate drunk by Aztec King Montezuma, called chocolatl or xocoatl, combined chocolate, sugar, cinnamon and chiles. Jason Gronlund, corporate executive chef and director of ingredient sales and culinary services, McIlhenny Company, Avery Island, LA, has spent a great deal of time developing desserts that use Tabasco® hot sauces. He includes the company's habanero sauce and popular hot pepper sauce in dessert applications.

The habanero sauce, made with habaneros, mango, banana, tamarind and papaya, Gronlund says, has a sweet background profile that lends itself to dessert applications. He has added both of these hot sauces to chocolate-based applications, such as cakes, mousses and ice cream. Adding heat to oatmeal cookies complements the raisins and spices in them.

Sweet-hot's staying power Americans overall have become more open to highly flavored foods, something that has been called a sophistication of the palate. Culinary influences from Asia -- especially Thailand and China -- and Mexico have introduced mainstream Americans to hotter foods, many with the sweet-hot melding of flavors. In addition, the influx of immigrants from countries where such flavors are common has created a market for new, highly flavored foods.

"Food preference is undoubtedly culturally based. Look into different cuisines all over the world and you will find the hot-sweet combination," says Gascon-Figuroa. "Nowadays, the cultural explosion in the United States and the demographic changes have created the right ambience to fuse diverse cuisines and open a window of opportunity for Americans to explore different stimulating tastes." Some products his company has developed include hot-sweet barbecue, wasabi-ginger, wasabi-honey, mango-chile-lime and ginger-lime sauces.

Jarretbangs says that the flavors of Asia and the Caribbean have been popular flavors for a while, usually fruit based plus or minus honey or caramelized-sugar notes and heat that comes from bird peppers, jalapeños, habaneros, wasabi or hot mustard. Sweet-hot glazes, rice side dishes with coconut milk and chiles, and lots of products called chutneys that take fruit and heat components to create condiments or glazes are examples of newer sweet-hot products on the market.

Ginger is one food ingredient that started a whole new trend in candy and beverages. "Ginger is not really sweet or savory, and depending on the concentration used, you can moderate the spice level. It paved the way for other categories to use a hot sensation," says Jarretbangs. Hot-ginger candy, for example, wasn't popular in this country until very recently. Now ginger appears in numerous beverages, condiments, sauces and candies and is one of the most-popular flavors on the market.

Adults aren't the only ones to embrace sweet-hot. Kids have fallen in love with extreme flavors in candy. They like the cooling, tingling and burning sensation they get from these candies that often comes from menthol in peppermint, spearmint and wintergreen, or from ginger or cinnamon. Adults are also fans of these candies.

Hot flavors in desserts is a current trend, with chiles showing up in high-end chocolate desserts both in restaurants and on gourmet retail shelves, as well as in confectionaries. However, long-term desire for capsaicin in brownies in the mainstream is doubtful.

Still, in the fancy-food world, there are a lot of sweet-hot products on the market, everything from spiced chocolates to any number of hot fruit sauces, jams, jellies and glazes.

One of the newer flavors that will hit the shelves is vanilla bean paired with ginger, or with tropical fruit and chile. "We are seeing vanilla bean used with or without heat in a lot of savory applications. It's one of those bridging flavors," Jarretbangs says. "It can enhance many ingredients. You are going to see more vanilla used in savory cooking. It's just the beginning."

The sweet-hot flavor combination has been around for a long time, and there is no reason to see its popularity wane. "I think it's a trend any company would want to represent, but it should not be the be all and end all," continues Jarretbangs. "Food manufacturers want to focus on a way to bring flavor excitement to consumers. Sweet is familiar, hot is popular. Everyone is looking for flavor intensity. But today it has to be a complex combination of flavors. It goes with the sophistication of the palate."

Sweet-hot, Jarretbangs asserts, is just one combination in the vein of flavor adventures. Formulations, whether in foodservice or retail, should be about heat that complements, not heat that knocks the consumer's socks off. The heat should lend flavor while letting other flavors shine through.

Nancy Backas is a Chicago-based freelance writer and chef. She has been writing about the foodservice industry for more than 20 years and can be reached at [email protected].

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