Spicy foods have been consumed by humans for centuries, although the heat contained in many plants is an adaptation meant to be a consumption deterrent (Rozin and Schiller, 1980). A food is categorized as spicy if it contains a chemesthetic irritant that causes a hot sensation; this irritant is often the chemical compound capsaicin (Rowland et al., 1983). Food scientists refer to the sensation caused by these irritants as pungency (Tornwall et al., 2012) and measure the associated heat level using Scoville heat units (SHU). The SHU has traditionally been measured using the human palette, but is now quantified via high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and converted to SHU (Collins et al., 1995). Naturally occurring spicy foods can vary in pungency, and thus in their SHU. For example, bell peppers (Capsicum annuum) are not pungent (SHU = 0), while the spicy pepper cultivar Trinidad Moruga Scorpion (Capsicum chinense) is extremely pungent and can measure more than 2 million SHU (Bosland et al., 2012). Any pepper type with ≥ 1 SHU could be considered spicy. However, for this study, paprika (0–300 SHU), New Mexico long green or red chile (300–500 SHU), and poblano/ancho (≈1369 SHU) types were included as mild spicy peppers (Table 1).
While some people like spicy foods, others do not. Much research has explored the psychological and physiological reasons behind variations in preference toward spicy foods. When non-likers of spicy foods and likers of spicy foods both consumed jelly spiked with the same amount of capsaicin, non-likers rated the jelly more intense and less pleasant than likers. The results of this study suggest genetic factors may help explain differences in pungency preferences (Tornwall et al., 2012). Although some research suggests exposure can improve liking (Rozin and Schiller, 1980), other findings suggest no difference between “non-likers” and “likers” in their exposure to spicy foods when young (Tornwall et al., 2012). Likers of spicy foods may have thrill-seeking personality traits or derive pleasure from the fact that pungency only appears harmful (Rozin and Schiller, 1980). Cultural influences (e.g., role models, early introduction) may also affect consumption of spicy foods (Ludy and Mattes, 2012).
Many spicy foods contain a wide array of possible spicy peppers. The general term spicy pepper is used to describe any number of peppers from the genus Capsicum with pungent types. These peppers are also known as hot, chili, chile, or pungent peppers [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2008]. Pungent peppers should not be confused with mild or bell pepper types, also referred to as green, sweet, or nonpungent peppers (USDA, 2008). Since the term “chile” or “chile pepper” is also used to describe a subset of pungent pepper types (e.g., anaheim or long red/green New Mexico-style chile peppers), the term “spicy pepper” will be used to describe pungent peppers as a whole throughout the remainder of this article.
In the United States, an increasing number of people are consuming foods made with spicy ingredients such as spicy peppers (e.g., Josiam and Monteiro, 2004). Per capita consumption of spicy peppers in the United States has more than doubled since 1980, but the United States is now a net importer of spicy peppers (Fig. 1). Although there are assuredly differences in the preferences of individuals regarding spicy foods, spicy/hot flavors are increasingly appealing in the United States (King et al., 2010). Moreover, consumers appear to enjoy spicy peppers for their heat: consumers rank pungency as the most important quality factor when choosing spicy peppers (Mohammed et al., 1993).
At the national level, little to no purchase or consumption data are available for individual spicy pepper types (e.g., jalapeños, serranos). Data are often incomplete, no longer updated, or all spicy pepper types are combined as “chile peppers” (USDA, 2008). Thus, few studies have examined consumer demand for individual spicy pepper types. Previous research, however, has explored the import quantity changes of specific spicy pepper types after human infectious disease outbreaks (Klontz et al., 2010). Consumer shopping and type preferences for spicy peppers have also been explored in Mexico and Canada (Castellon-Martinez et al., 2012; Mohammed et al., 1993). Little data exist, however, to compare U.S. consumption trends by pepper type. One way to collect current consumer demand data are through the use of Web-based surveys.
Web-based surveys are becoming increasingly popular in market research as they present a number of advantages. Advantages include time and cost efficiency (Couper, 2001; Evans and Mathur, 2005; Miller and Dickson, 2001), flexibility in the way questions are presented (Couper, 2001; Evans and Mathur, 2005), and ability to reach a large segment of the population (Evans and Mathur, 2005; Sheehan, 2002). Although the methodology has advantages, it also has limitations, some of which are common to other survey methodologies. Limitations of Web-based surveys, such as online panel surveys, include potential limited distribution or inability to reach all segments of the population (Miller and Dickson, 2001), difficulties in measuring representativeness of the sample/sampling frame (Miller and Dickson, 2001; Evans and Mathur, 2005; Wright, 2005), and other issues common with self-administered surveys, such as an inability to focus respondent attention on the survey task (Miller and Dickson, 2001). Despite some of these potential issues, this study aims to provide some of the first national data to explore U.S. consumer preferences as they relate to seven common spicy pepper types.
Stakeholders in the U.S. spicy pepper food chain need timely information about consumer preferences and shopping patterns to make informed production and marketing decisions. However, little market data are publically available about U.S. spicy pepper consumers; specifically, their demographics, what kinds of peppers they consume, and their shopping patterns. This article adds to the body of knowledge of demand for U.S. spicy peppers. We provide baseline data to explore U.S. consumer preferences as they relate to spicy peppers regardless of their source.
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