WASHINGTON — A nation on the rebound from its long affair with comfort food has a hot new love: chili pepper.
Once worshipped by Incas and Olmecs, chili now is revered by surging numbers of Americans with heat-seeking palates and by food marketers who are keen to stimulate them.
Together, they've made chili the second-most-craved flavor in the United States after chocolate, according to Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist who's studied the appeals of both foods.
Rozin calls the chili pepper craving "benign masochism," a harmless way to stimulate pain sensors.
"I like the excitement that chili pepper adds to food," said Vidal Jarqun, 72, a retired State Department employee, pausing before the jalapenos at a local Whole Foods store. "And, yes, I've been using more as I've gotten older."
"We're seeing increased demand for anything with increased heat," said Diane McElroy, consumer affairs manager at Tone's Spices of Ankeny, Iowa, the second-biggest U.S. supplier and blender of herbs and spices.
That's a startling change for millions of consumers who a generation ago couldn't have spelled or defined chipotle, the smoky-flavored richly hot pepper.
Indeed, chili products — fresh, dried, ground or otherwise — are so popular these days that Eric Shultz, the brand manager for Pace salsas, the leading brand, reported a 23 percent New Year's sales gain compared with New Year's 2008.
"Pretty much all the hotter, more ethnic-oriented flavors are doing real well right now," said Christopher Clark, the vice president for operations of the Snack Food Association in Arlington, Va.
Spicy snack foods also thrived in past recessions, recalled Dwight Riskey, retired chief marketing officer at Frito-Lay, maker of Doritos brand chips and Tostitos salsa.
"Low-end luxury goods like them do well in tough economic times," he said, because they give the pleasure of an indulgence cheaply.
Janie Lamson, the owner of Cross Country Nurseries in Rosemont, N.J., the leading U.S. retail shipper of chili pepper plants, is riding a longer-term trend. Her revenues are up an average of 13 percent a year, she said, since her nursery switched to hot peppers from landscaping plants in 2000.
Top sellers among her 500 pepper varieties include four of her five hottest, she added.
Asked why that might be, Lamson said that serious "chili-heads" drove the market, and she offered an analogy to drinkers.
"People who go to one party a year, they have one drink and they're flying," Lamson said. "But with people who drink every night, it takes more. And typical heat doesn't cut the mustard."
Dr. Marcia Pelchat, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit lab that studies taste and smell, thinks she knows why.
"In marketing terms," Pelchat said, the main active component in chili peppers, capsaicin, "has the positive traits of addiction without the negative ones."
She and Rozin see no withdrawal symptoms among chili-heads deprived of the spice, which may mean only that they haven't studied people who move from New Orleans to New Hampshire. However, they find that:
- Many people profoundly crave the chili experience. They find eating hot peppers — with all the attendant tearing, sweating and runny noses — to be far more intense and complex than eating anything else. "They're much more present in the experience" than when they eat other foods, said Shultz, Pace's brand manager.
Untrue, or at least unproved, leading researchers said, is the widely cited theory that chili is addictive because eating it releases pleasure-giving substances called endorphins.
"There is no evidence that capsaicin releases endorphins. It's pure conjecture," responded Dr. Solomon Snyder, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine molecular neuroscientist who discovered the brain's opiate receptors.
"This is not to say that they never do," added Dr. Huda Akil, a co-director and senior research professor at the University of Michigan's Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience Institute.
"They might because they trigger pain and endorphins are often secondarily released following pain or stress," Akil wrote in an e-mail. "Or they might if they create a reward for some who loves them. We hypothesize that reward is often accompanied by release of endorphins.
"But there is a long way to go between conjecture and scientific evidence."
A promising theory is that capsaicin excites the trigeminal nerve, which takes sensory input to the brain from the palate, lips and gums, among other areas. The trigeminal nerve can make taste receptors more aroused, studies have shown.
"Tabasco enhances the flavor of what is there already," said Harold Osborn, the vice president of agriculture and new product development for the McIlhenny Co., Tabasco's maker.
That's the theory behind putting Tabasco sauce in military meals ready to eat. It also helps to explain Burger King's jalapeno-boosted Angry Whopper, introduced Jan. 5. "It promises to aggressively ignite the taste buds of our guests," said John Schaufelberger, Burger King's senior vice president for global marketing and innovation.
Not only salsas, chips and hot sauces are selling well these days but also novelties such as Tabasco-flavored soda, Tabasco-flavored Spam, chili-spiced apple jelly and chili lollipops.
People who are addicted to chili peppers and chocolate can treat themselves to both with habanero-spiced brownies or spiced chocolate. There's even a "pink fix" that uses chili powder to open up nasal membranes and make a cocaine high higher.
McIlhenny, Frito-Lay and Pace are extending their long-dominant basic brands with hotter or milder variants, and mixing sweet and fruit flavors with chili in new ways.
Once consumers pick favorites, "They're as deeply passionate about it as they are about their favorite beer," Shultz said.
All the hullabaloo about chili makes no sense to millions of Americans, of course, because of the spice's remarkable bipolar popularity,
"It's either `No, I don't like it,' or `Yes, I love it.' There's almost no 'I think it's OK,' " Osborn said.
Mexican, Thai, Chinese and Cajun food were the typical American routes to discovering chili, said McElroy, the Tone's Spices official.
As those cuisines spread inland from both coasts and northward, the taste became national.
"The Upper Midwest came to hot peppers last," McElroy said, with help from cosmopolitan Toronto.
Because people who like the spice use more of it over time and with more foods, the chili craze will continue to grow, Osborn added. It'll grow lots if his dream of the next big thing comes true: Tabasco on pizza.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY