KANSAS CITY — It’s not just sweet, it’s not just spicy — it’s “swicy” — and it’s all the rage in the world of salty and savory foods, most notably in meat, poultry and alternative protein applications.
Sweet and spicy flavor pairings have existed for centuries and may be found in cuisines all around the world. One of the attractions is sweetness (from caloric carbohydrates, not non-nutritive sweeteners) helps tame the kick of capsaicin, the chemical compound in peppers that delivers fiery flavor. That’s because sugar coats the taste buds, while capsaicin binds to them. By mellowing the perception of heat with sugar, the consumer can better taste the complexity of the pepper as well as the carrier food.
“Swicy flavors have become extremely popular, as they are the perfect bridge between sweet and savory,” said Jacob Sturm, innovation chef with flavor developer Monin, Inc., Clearwater, Fla. “This growing popularity for swicy food has greatly increased the interest in Asian cuisine, as one of the many things it is known for is sweet and spicy foods.”
While the descriptor swicy may not be incorporated into consumer marketing, it’s a term that formulators and flavorists are referencing during product development. It likely emerged with the popularity of Mike’s Hot Honey, specifically when drizzled over pepperoni pizza. The swicy flavor profile is now responsible for the creation of a plethora of condiments and marinades to assist Americans struggling with cooking fatigue.
“The hybrid meal has taken over America’s kitchens, with the continued home-centered world having room for premium purchases,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, principal, 210 Analytics, San Antonio, Texas. “Half of Americans say they prepare dinner using a mix of scratch-cooked and semi-and fully prepared items.”
The survey Roerink referenced was conducted with 1,550 adult shoppers in May 2023. Results were presented at What’s in Store Live during the International Dairy, Deli and Bakery Association’s annual meeting that was held June 4-6 in Anaheim, Calif.
Unique flavors and textures in condiments and marinades provide an appealing twist to staple foods, said Ms. Roerink. It is an approach quick-service restaurant companies have latched onto to appeal to different consumer tastes. It also has fueled innovation in the packaged goods sector, with some meat and poultry processors applying marinades to case-ready meats. In other instances, retailers merchandise marinades and condiments in the meat department to provide home cooks with an easy way to serve a novel version of a classic dish.
A new version of swicy just started showing up at Chick-fil-A. It’s the company’s first ever twist on its original chicken sandwich. The new Honey Pepper Pimento features the chain’s original chicken filet topped with pimento cheese, pickled jalapeños and a drizzle of honey all atop a toasted bun.
The pimento cheese spread is formulated with sharp cheddar cheese, green chilis and red pimentos. The pickled jalapeños deliver enough heat to balance the sweet and salty flavors, according to the company. The drizzle of honey adds a subtly sweet flavor to tie everything together.
Outback Steakhouse developed a limited time sweet heat season menu that is running from July 26 to Oct. 31 and features hot honey fried chicken among other swicy entrees, desserts and beverages.
“The ‘swicy’ trend is a natural fit for us and appeals to all our guests because of its balanced flavor profile,” said Becky Boyd, director of menu innovation and strategy at Outback’s parent company, Bloomin’ Brands.
Mr. Sturm has developed numerous swicy recipes for Monin’s foodservice customers using the company’s fruit syrups. For a unique spin on swicy wings, he suggested blending dragon fruit syrup with sriracha sauce, along with lime juice, soy sauce, minced garlic and butter. Another concept uses the company’s mango syrup blended with pepper sauce, red pepper flakes and butter.
Here’s the deal with heat. When consumers can control its addition to a dish, they are less fearful of it. And when it comes with a little sweet, all the better. This is not just at lunch and dinner. It’s at breakfast and snack time, too.
“We’re often sitting down as a multi-generational family with a variety of different taste preferences and spice level affinity, so sauces help make sure everyone is getting the specific experience they want,” said Jill Houk, director of culinary, Olam Food Ingredients (OFI), Chicago. “They are one of the easiest ways to switch up the flavor of a meal and are a super easy way for consumers to ensure that their entire family likes what they’re eating.”
Itzel Rincon, sales and new product innovation director, Chaucer Foods, Hull, the United Kingdom, said, “Shoppers are scanning for condiments that bring new spices and flavors into their lives. It’s a simple way to test out new taste experiences.”
Market research firm Datassential, Chicago, said demand for spicy foods has grown in the foodservice segment, where 71% of menus and 11% of drink menus feature the word “spicy.” In fact, during the first half of 2023, there were 270 spicy limited-time offerings introduced by major foodservice chains.
“If you have this idea that (spicy flavors) are super polarizing, that’s actually not necessarily the case,” said Mike Kostyo, associate director and “trendologist” at Datassential in a July 6 webinar. “There’s a good number of consumers who agree that the things we’re adding to major chain menus are things they want to purchase.
“Spice is almost like a lifestyle, there’s these trappings of ‘I’m somebody that loves heat,’” Mr. Kostyo said. “For a lot of people that love spice, it’s a true love for spice. It really is part of who they are and how they eat.”
Within the world of spice, flavors like salsa macha and tajin have grown the most over the last four years across all categories, according to Datassential. Nashville hot, spicy margarita and mango habanero flavors also saw triple-digit increases during the same period. Popular pepper ingredient additions include pickled Fresno, pickled jalapeños, ghost peppers, habanero peppers and Calabrian chili peppers. These peppers often are combined with a less intimidating familiar flavor.
It was the familiar — honey — with a touch of heat, that fueled Mike’s Hot Honey to condiment stardom. Other competitors are rolling out their own twists. Howell’s Standard LLC, Marlboro, Md., for example, now offers honey infused with pepper and a hint of vinegar, as well as new mango hot honey.
Kelchner Food Products, a brand of Huntsinger Farms Inc., Eau Claire, Wis., now offers smoky maple chipotle marinade and sauce. It has the consistency of honey with “a little sweet, a little heat and a ton of yum,” according to the company. With its distinctive smoky flavor, it is intended for pulled pork, grilled chicken and steak.
“Kelchner’s research and development team is on the pulse of the latest consumer food trends and wanted to create a flavor that responded to consumers’ appreciation for smoky, sweet and spicy combinations,” said Judy Christensen, research and development and technical services manager. “Our ‘Zing Masters’ experts — a roster of professional food scientists — experimented for a year to find the perfect balance.”
Another trend fueling interest in swicy is consumer interest in Asian cuisine, in particular South Korean cuisine, which heavily relies on the sweet and spicy flavor combination of yangnyeom sauce in chicken dishes. Korean yangnyeom is made by combining gochujang, soy sauce, sugar, rice wine vinegar, garlic and ginger.
Gochujang alone is swicy. It’s a thick reddish paste with a kick of heat from red chilis and a touch of sweetness from rice syrup. It serves as a base for condiment and sauce innovation in the Korean barbecue space. With the addition of brown sugar and tomato paste you get a barbecue profile. Add hot sauce for Buffalo wing. Any of these sauces may complement Korean-style fried chicken, which features a chunky crust that absorbs the sauce when tossed and served.
Swicy snacking innovation
Korean barbecue, along with other Asian flavor profiles, is popular in the meat snack category. Teriyaki, peppered and spicy are some of the most popular flavors, according to research conducted by jerkybrands.com using data from the US Census and Simmons National Consumer Survey. Smoked/mesquite, barbecue and hickory follow. These are generalized flavor trends, with many innovators differentiated by dialing into more regional flavor descriptors.
Windward Jerky Co., Eastvale, Calif., developed Alaka’I Island Teriyaki Beef Jerky made using a Hawaiian marinade. It includes highlights of ginger, soy, garlic and pineapple with a hint of sweet-salty umami.
Field Trip Snacks’ newest jerky offering is Gochujang “made the authentic way with red miso and gochugaru pepper,” according to the company. Made with grass-fed beef, the variety also includes pear puree in the marinade to add a non-characterizing layer of flavor that brings all the tastes together.
Swicy also is exemplified in new Jack Link’s Doritos Spicy Sweet Chili Flavored Beef Jerky from Jack Link’s Protein Snacks, Minong, Wis., which partnered with PepsiCo, NY, Purchase, NY, to develop this flavor mashup. The joint venture also includes the rollout of Jack Link’s Flamin’ Original Beef Jerky.