I have never been a spicy food kind of girl. Jalapenos? No thanks. Hot sauce? Never.

So, in some ways I was surprised when I visited OSI Group’s headquarters in Aurora, Ill., for this month’s cover story and learned from executives there that spicy foods are hotter than ever.

“There is this whole explosion of ethnic flavor profiles,” says Kevin Scott, executive vice president of the $5 billion foodservice and co-manufacturing giant.

The numbers agree. More than 300 refrigerated and frozen food products bearing the word “spicy” were launched in the last year in the U.S. and Canada alone according to Mintel’s Global New Product Database. And Datamonitor’sProductScan database reports that self-described “spicy” food introductions doubled between 2003 and 2006.

Reasons for this phenomenon vary depending on whom you ask.

Many are quick to blame baby boomers’ aging taste buds. An article that ran in the Boston Globe last year quoted SupermarketGuru.com analyst Phil Lempert as saying, "There's no question that as the baby boomers are aging they're losing their taste buds, and as a result they're drawn not only to more spicy foods, but to more flavorful foods of all kinds.”

Others point to consumers’ increased awareness of all things global (thanks to the Internet) and exposure to ethnic cooking techniques and flavors on shows such as Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and others on The Food Network.

No matter what the cause of this influx of ethnic and spicy flavors, it doesn’t take an industry expert to notice the growing presence of items such as sushi at mainstream grocery stores and Thai chicken pizza on chain restaurant menus.

“Consumers want a fusion of ethnicities [in their food] so that they can celebrate food - not just as a uni-dimensional American palette, but as a multi-dimensional palette,” says Scott. “Our customer base is reflecting that and looking to us to bring that type of ethnic, bolder flavor.”

And OSI is answering its customers’ calls with items such as a hot dog stuffed with a mixture of jalapenos and cheddar cheese.

When I visited the company’s Oakland, Iowa, plant I was given the opportunity to sample this product. At first I refused. But as my companions voiced their pleasure over the product, I grew curious.

Before I could stop myself I took a small bite and then another and another. Maybe I could use a little spice in my life after all.

Just the facts

According to The Nielsen Co.’s recent analysis of macroeconomic variables, historical trends and consumer behavior, consumer packaged good products that are mostrecession-proof(or least vulnerable to a recession) include: seafood, dry pasta, candy, beer and pasta sauce. Among those products most vulnerable to a recession are: carbonated beverages, eggs, cups/plates, food prep/storage items and tobacco.

Gluten, soy, nuts - the list of potential allergens goes on. In fact, it’s become such a concern in the food industry that Packaged Facts predicts the food-allergy and intolerance product market will reach$3.9 billionthis year. Meanwhile, Mintel estimates the gluten-free food and drink market alone will reach $1.3 billion by 2010 - up from $700 million in 2006.
Source: The Wall Street Journal

And now, another reason to eat Omega 3-rich foods. Australian scientists reviewed nine published studies of people affected with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) - the leading cause of blindness in the elderly - and found that diets high in Omega 3s resulted in a38 percent reduced riskof suffering from advanced AMD.
Source: Archives of Ophthalmology

First beef, then pot pies and now tomatoes are the latest food to suffer from Salmonella-related scandal. No wonder consumers are concerned about food safety.  A recent 1,000-person study found that76 percentof those surveyed are more concerned about the foods they eat than they were five years ago.  Participants especially were worried about beef recalls (78 percent) followed by chicken recalls (67 percent).
Source: Deloitte Consulting