As it turns out, Beyoncé is not the only one who carries hot sauce in her bag.
The spicy condiment is currently having a moment, as proclaimed proudly in Beyoncé’s hit song, ‘Formation’. More than half of all American households, according to the NPD Group, currently have a bottle of the stuff and shipments by commercial food distributors to restaurants, cafes and bars has grown by double digits over the last few years.
“20 years ago who here knew what a chipotle pepper was?,” asked Darren Seifer, NPD’s food and beverage industry analyst. Now he says it would be hard to find someone who hasn’t.
While Louisiana-style hot sauce and Tabasco still dominate the industry (the brand “is the Kleenex of hot sauce,” says Seifer) what’s now helping to drive awareness is a wide variety of new flavors and styles.
The combination of habanero and different tropical fruits, like mango, has proven to be a winning combination.
The most successful example of these new concoctions is, of course, sriracha, which is showing up on tables in all kinds of restaurants and in all kinds of foods, including potato chips. (Even Lay’s and Trader Joe’s have sriracha versions.)
How popular has it become? Seifer says the sauce is in nine-percent of all American households. That number grows to 16 percent in households, where the head of the house is younger than 35.
This spike in popularity is consistent with the fact that with each generation America continues to get increasingly more diverse. In 2044, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau that came out last year, non-Hispanic whites “will comprise less than 50 percent of the nation’s total population.”
In that year, “no group will have a majority share of the total and the United States will become a “plurality” of racial and ethnic groups.”
These changes in the make up of America, according to Denver Nicks, author of the forthcoming book, Hot Sauce Nation: America’s Burning Obsession, began with changes in immigration policy in the 1960s that allowed in people from a broader range of countries—many of whom came from cultures that value spicy foods.
“In large part the reason for the hot sauce boom is immigration,” says Nicks. “[Immigrants] have changed our country and also us.” As a result, there is a broader variety of cuisines and cooking ingredients available around the country.
Even though many Americans are just discovering the joys of fiery food, hot peppers have been around for centuries.
Birds helped to introduce them to different cultures, including ones in South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Unlike humans, birds don’t feel a pepper’s burn, since they’re “not affected by capsaicin,” says Nicks. And more importantly, he says that a pepper’s seeds aren’t destroyed by a bird’s digestive process.
While hot peppers are now often associated with the foods of the East, including India, they came from the new world. In addition to chilies, “the Americas’ only noteworthy contributions to the spice cabinet were vanilla and allspice,” writes Nicks in his book. “Thus when chilies hit European shores in the fifteenth century, something unprecedented happened to world cuisine. It’s fair to say that chilies were the first spice to go viral.”
The process also led to some confusion in their name. Christopher Columbus was looking to bring back black pepper from the new world and brought back chilies instead, which is why they’re now called chili peppers despite the fact chilies and peppers are not technically related.
So how hot will hot sauce get? Given its extended shelf life and the fact that generally a few dashes goes a long way (as opposed to ketchup or mustard that gets slathered on food) it will likely continue to get more popular but sales will still lag behind other more ubiquitous condiments.
Fortunately for hot heads, if anything food brands and chefs will find even more uses for it and hot sauce will get ever more fiery. “I don’t see a decline in hotter or spicier flavors in the future,” says Seifer—good news for all of us, including Beyoncé.