by Peter Furth
Executive Vice President & CEO
American Spice Trade Association, Inc.

Published in
Frozen Food Digest
February/March 1993

In 1990 it was reported that 1,024 new fat-reduced food products reached the market in the U.S. In 1991 the total rose to 1,198. Such is the power of health concerns. As one observer put it, "Consumers have figured out that keeping an eye on calories isn't enough. Fat is the most important thing now."

But fat isn't the only "thing" in the health picture. Calories are still important to a vast majority of people. Cholesterol remains vital to many and so does salt/sodium.

All these health concerns add up to one of the reasons U.S. spice consumption is fast approaching a billion pounds a year. As every food manufacturer knows all too well, when you reduce fat, sugar or salt the even bigger loss is in flavor. Fortunately, spices are big in flavor. Yet, in normal usage, they make no significant contribution of fat, calories or sodium (and being plant products, no cholesterol at all).

Of course, replacing diminished flavor with increased spice raises an interesting question: Will the consumer accept more spice? In the last analysis, that question can only be answered by consumer testing of a specific product, but perhaps some spice statistics will help predict the potentials for spicier products.

It's a fact, for example, that Americans as a nation are using more total spice than ever before. In the last decade alone, the level has increased some 50 percent. And while the rate of usage more total spice than ever before. In the last decade alone, the level has increased some 50 percent. And while the rate of usage has generally been up since W.W. II, the curve has taken a much steeper climb since 1980. We're now at 821 million pounds a year. At the present rate of gain we should reach the billion mark before the turn of the century. In other words, spicier food products in general should have a better chance of approval these days.

Product developers should also take note that we have an interesting dichotomy in spice consumption: The hot spices (the red pepper family and black and white pepper) and conversely the mild herbs, are both performing better than the average (for spices as a whole).

From 1987-91 the U.S. consumption of the "hot" spices (the red pepper family and black and white pepper) has averaged 184 million pounds a year. This compared with only 99 million pounds on average a decade before. This represents an 85 percent increase. The red pepper family alone (ranging in bite from that of chili powder through the hottest of little chillies) was up 187 percent. Black and white pepper did not show as great a gain (28 percent), but considering pepper's long preeminence in cooking and at the dinner table, the fact that we're now using over 18 million more pounds of pepper a year than we were 10 years ago is quite remarkable. (Our test kitchen notes that a single ounce of black pepper will season 1,440 fried eggs and that it takes nearly 50 million additional sprinklings to increase pepper consumption a single ton.) The red pepper spices are even more potent. This is what makes these multi-million pound gains all the more impressive.

The "hot trend" is even greater than these figures indicate. We chose black and red pepper as our index because they're at the heart of it, but the complete story is bigger yet. For example, mustard seed has also increased and much of it becomes a hot condiment. But it was not included because it is not clear how much is used that way. Nor do the dried spice figures reflect the considerable quantities of canned green chillies and bottled hot sauces that are being consumed in this country today. If it were possible to track the entire story, it would soon be evident that we have a major swing in our national taste pattern. When the increases are as substantial as these figures show, this is no localized movement, or fad of the moment. We're looking at a generally increased level of acceptance for hot spiciness in food today.

Meantime, while the hot spices are booming, we have an interesting story at the other end of the taste scale. The herbs are also outstripping spices as a whole. ASTA has tracked basil, oregano, thyme, bay leaves and sage over the past decade. Here's what we've found: In tonnage, this herb group has averaged 21.5 million pounds a year over the past five years, compared to 12.6 million pounds in the parallel period 10 years ago - a gain of 71 percent. Basil showed the greatest rise - up 253 percent. Oregano is our largest herb in tonnage; it reached almost 12 million pounds in 1991.

Behind the increased usage of herbs are such factors as the pizza boom (oregano and basil), the proliferation of spaghetti sauce products and prepared salad dressings and mixes and the influence of ethnic (particularly Italian) specialties in general.

Whatever the food trend, be It health concerns or ethnic foods, spices offer a tasty answer and it's an answer the American public seems more than ready to accept.