'Swicy' is the hottest trend in food right now

Coca-Cola this year added a spiced-up soda as its first new permanent flavor in years.

Coca-Cola this year added a spiced-up soda as its first new permanent flavor in years. (Randy Shropshire, Getty Images for Sonic Desert via CNN Newsource)


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NEW YORK — Americans should prepare for a sizzling hot summer, and not just because of rising temperatures.

Consumers are bravely opening their palate to bolder, spicier, more fiery flavors and the marketplace for foods and drinks is happily obliging them.

Walk into a Walmart, Target, a corner 7-Eleven, pretty much any food store lately that sells packaged food and it's hard to miss. The snack aisle has gotten spicier.

"The spicy trend is here to stay," Sally Lyons Wyatt, packaged goods and foodservice industry advisor with market research firm Circana, said in an interview with CNN.

From chips, popcorn, burgers to ice cream, frozen pizza, alcohol, Starbucks drinks to Coca-Cola, a growing variety of foods and beverage brands are punching up their offerings by adding the spice, bold "swicy" flavor or outright heat.

"My whole motto for a couple of years has been, 'The hotter the better,' because consumers gravitate to it. Traditionally it was younger consumers that were driving this, but now we've seen bold flavors being embraced by most age groups but the dominant are still younger consumers," Lyons Wyatt said.

The segment of the population firing up demand for fiery flavors, she said, includes younger Millennials, Gen Z and the youngest cohort, Gen Alpha.

While it might seem as though we're surrounded by spiciness in every grocery aisle lately, the start of this trend goes back at least a decade and is well established with spicy flavors in snacking, she said.

"But the proliferation of spiciness across different categories, like beverages, that part is relatively new," Lyons said.

To her point, Coca-Cola in February launched its first new permanent soda flavor addition in years. The flavor it chose: Coca-Cola Spiced. The company told CNN that its own research had surfaced an "increase in consumer willingness to try a spiced beverage" and "more bold flavors and more complex flavor profiles" both in food and beverages.

The soda giant described the new drink as a blend of the traditional Coke flavor with raspberry and spiced flavors and said it would be available in both full sugar and zero-sugar varieties.

First comes spice, then comes "swicy"

Starbucks in April came out with a new limited-time spiced up line of its lemonade drinks in three flavors — Spicy Dragonfruit, Spicy Pineapple and Spicy Strawberry, which it said are inspired by the "swicy" trend of creatively combining sweet and spicy flavors.

Spicy plus sweet give you "Swicy." And yes, brands are trying to make it a thing as they look for ways to stretch out the spicy trend.

It said the refreshers, targeting Gen Z and Millennials, are punched up by adding Starbucks' spicy chili powder blend to the concoctions. In the spring, Starbucks also introduced limited-time hot honey drinks, made with wildflower honey infused with chili peppers, such as Hot Honey Affogato and Hot Honey Espresso Martini to the menu at its Starbucks Reserve roasteries and stores in the US.

"I think we are going to see a lot more of this," said Lyons Wyatt. "There is a push now, and we do see both unit and dollar growth of spicy and swicy products."

Younger, diverse America is spicier

According to Circana, dollar sales for food and beverages with "spicy" in the description has increased 9% year-over-year.

Circana's latest data also found that 11% of 25- to 34-year-olds enjoy bold and unexpected flavors, up 7 percentage points from 2019 and that 11% of 18- to 34-year-olds enjoy bold and unexpected flavors, up 4.7 percentage points from 2019.

Shifting demographics is a big driver for bolder flavor experimentation, industry experts said.

The United States has become more racially and ethnically diverse, and as such, sees widening access to more global ingredients and dishes, Jennifer Creevy, director of food and drink at trend forecasting and analytics firm WGSN, said in an interview with CNN.

"The younger generations, Gen Z and Gen Alpha, are also much more global in their outlook than previous generations. To them a chilli crisp or a salsa macha is as much a regular condiment as say a mayo or ketchup," Creevy said.

Increased globalization has also led to more culturally diverse music, entertainment and gaming become the norm, which in turn influences our food decisions, she said.

"Take the rise of K-Drama and K-Pop as an example. Fans of this entertainment want to consume the media but also want to taste the flavors of Korea, hence the rise of spicy Gochujang, which is now in everything from dishes to snacks, drinks and desserts," she said. Gochujang, a red chili paste, is a popular Korean condiment.

Interest is also growing for Vietnamese and African cuisine over the last four years, according to global market research firm Mintel.

The pandemic, too, has been an important accelerator of the popularity of spice.

"During the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, consumers could not travel and so yearned to taste the cuisines of faraway places," Creevy said. "This, coupled with consumers becoming more confident in the kitchen has led to more adventurous tastes.

Can our taste buds handle spice as we age?

The longevity of spicy and swicy will depend on how committed consumers are to sticking with these flavors as they grow older.

"Our tastebuds change as we age. So I'm hesitant to say that it is for everyone all through your life," said Lyons Wyatt. "It is being fueled by the younger generation, and enjoyed by all generations, just not at the same degree."

Expect spiciness to expand to other food categories, too. "More sweet and spicy in confections, in frozen goods, in deli products and more in pizza varieties through the sauces," she said.

Pepsico, which owns the spicy Flamin' Hot snack and beverage brand, told CNN that in 2023, shoppers in North America made nearly 400 million trips to stores to purchase Flamin' Hot products, up 31% from the previous year.

"Flamin' Hot is especially popular among younger, more adventurous consumers, who want that hit of intense experience with every bite," said Mustafa Shamseldin, category growth officer and CMO, International Foods at Pepsico. "We've continued to cultivate the brand to satisfy the expectations of this group and consistently work to bring forward flavors that resonate — whether they're looking big flavors with a hint of spice or a full blast of heat."

Nestlé USA, which owns the DiGiorno frozen pizza brand, told CNN it's leaning into the trend with product innovations. Nestlé in the spring launched its DiGiorno Thin & Crispy Stuffed Crust Pepperoni Pizza with Mike's Hot Honey. Nestlé also introduced the Tombstone tavern-style pizza called "the Primo," with pepperoni, sausage, banana peppers and red onion.

Nestlé has also trotted out recent spicy innovations such as California Pizza Kitchen's Hot Honey Croissant Crust Pizza, Stouffer's Spicy Nacho Mac and Hot Pockets x Hot Ones.

"I'd like to challenge the perception that the American palate was ever bland to begin with: red pepper flakes have always been a core part of the pizza experience," said Varchasvi Singh, food service analyst with Mintel.

"Americans have made cult-favorites out of condiments like Sriracha and hot honey. But there certainly is an expanded appetite for spicy foods and flavors, one that is driven by wanting to explore unfamiliar ingredients and cuisines," Singh said. "This enthusiasm isn't a fad, it is here to stay."

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