Spicy foods have never played a starring role in American kitchens. For decades, our meat-and-potatoes diets left little room for adventure at the grocery store, where the closest you got to some heat was a bottle of Tabasco.
That's changing in a big way, however. American taste buds are getting bolder, and food producers are kicking their products up a serious notch or two in response. Peppers are popping up in the unlikeliest of places -- a Lindt red chili chocolate bar, anyone? -- and other flavors seem to be getting intensified as well.
Check out the potato chip aisle, for example, where Lays' Sriracha flavor is joining Flamin' Hot Cheetos and Kettle's jalapeno brand. Even chips without a chili pepper are boosting their flavors -- some salt and vinegar varieties are so strong you'll feel the burn on your lips for hours.
Now, companies from Kraft (KRFT) to General Mills (GIS) are adding more spices to more foods, The Wall Street Journal reports. And they're doing this for good reason: People who like spicy foods can become very loyal shoppers.
"You get endorphins when you eat something really spicy," the senior manager of consumer insights at General Mills told The Journal.
There's also a more practical motivation here. The U.S. is becoming more racially diverse, and the American diet is changing. There are more Hispanic shoppers, and younger eaters are more open to spicier foods.
And so you'll find the jalapeno, and its smoke-dried sibling, the chipotle, in Bumble Bee canned tuna, Oscar Mayer hot dogs and Philadelphia cream cheese.
The hotter habanero is now in Kraft sliced cheese. And even the dreaded ghost pepper, or bhut jolokia, can be found on store shelves in products from the Mrs. Renfro's brand, described by one Amazon reviewer as "punishment for the entire digestive system."
Food companies say spicy food can be a "badge of authenticity" for some, The Journal reports. So maybe eating habanero cheese gives you bragging rights. Or maybe people are just bored with the usual flavor lineup at stores. At any rate, expect to see more food companies experimenting with heat. They want to find that next cult food item, one that has your endorphins doing jumping jacks and keeps you coming back for more.