When It Comes To Candy, Americans Can't Take The Heat
By: Rudy Sanchez
America’s sweet tooth is constantly evolving, combining sweet with savory, salty, and sour. Until recently, spicy mostly fell upon the shoulders of cinnamon here in the US.
But south of the border, confectioners have been mixing sour, salt, heat and spicy for ages, often layering these flavors into a single candy, providing consumers a symphony of tastes with a complex profile.
The world has gotten smaller, and America is going through a telenovela-level of romance with heat and spice. But this love affair has been mostly confined to savory snacks like potato and corn chips. Or take YouTube sensation Hot Ones with its millions of views—hosted by Sean Evans, he interviews celebrities while they eat increasingly hotter wings. It was only a matter of time that America’s increasing taste for heat reached candy as well.
But how does do these compare to traditional Mexican candy? Is this just a fiery fling or will spicy heat plant itself in the Parthenon of candy like hot sauces have in the savory world?
Tropical fruits like mango, pineapples and lime have been around in the American flavor profile, but always playing second fiddle to traditional stalwarts like apple, cherry and grape. In the case of the new trend of spicy candy, brands like Skittles are including Latin candy staples like watermelon, mango, lemon, orange and strawberry.
Red Hots, long a popular cinnamon candy, has also thrown their sombrero into the ring, releasing a mango-lime spicy variant. This chewy confection relies on habanero peppers to complement the sweet mango and tangy lime.
The spicy trend isn’t just limited to fruity candy. Snickers is also experimenting with spicy chocolate as they now have a fiery candy bar incorporating chocolate, nuts, and nougat, but with a hot, subtle aftertaste that lingers in your throat.
So far, confectioners this side of the Rio Grande are merely dipping their toes in. Candies like Vero Mango or Pelon Pelonazo have a more intense heat while other snacks like Limon 7 are saltier and tangier.
The packaging is also less intense: Skittles and Starburst “Sweet Heat” candies come in a sleek black package, whereas Mexican candy tends to come in bright and bold packages featuring primary colors, or they feature smiling, outrageous mascots. The folks at Snickers have decided to play it safe as their “Fiery” wrappers look nearly identical to the regular Snickers bar, save for a pepper icon.
Similarly, Jolly Ranchers Hotties sticks mostly to their normal blue packaging and same font, but have replaced “Hard Candy” underneath the brand name with “Hotties,” adding shades to the fruit characters and flames along the top and bottom of the bag (flames tend to be a common motif). Sour Punch’s approach is similar to Snicker’s where they've added a few chili peppers and called it a day.
Mexican confectioners, by contrast, don’t use fire or peppers as prominently on their wrappers. However, it's possible there’s an assumed expectation of spice and heat among their consumers. The fonts are more stylized and playful on Mexican candy packages as well, and fruit is used in a comparable manner among both US and Latin candy makers.
The packaging for Mexican candy seems designed to appeal mostly to children, while their American counterparts are more subdued and sleek. It's quite possible that the intended audience for these candies are actually adults, eschewing children as their primary target as they could potentially have an unpleasant experience. Of course, kids have been eating Taki and hot Cheeto snacks for years. In fact, a kid’s rap group, Da Rich Kidzz, released Hot Cheetos and Takis back in 2013.
So why are candy makers playing it safe, given the intensity of heat in the savory snack space? Is it about the kids? Is it the uncertainty that American consumers won’t buy into heat when it comes to candy?
Neither seems like a particularly good rational given the popularity of hot sauces and spicy-savory snacks like Hot Cheetos and “atomic” level hot wings served in many bars and restaurants. There could be a larger reason, a more cultural reason, not driven by fear of burning kiddy tongues across the land or introducing duds to the market, but something entirely different.
This broadening of the candy spectrum in the US is interesting but ultimately stops short of being an imitation of Latin candy. Perhaps it’s the beginning of a new genre of sweets in the US, something inspired and reinterpreted, something that's modified for local tastes or more adventurous eaters.
But isn’t that a microcosm of America really? Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex cuisine were experiments in bringing Americans the food they might have sampled on vacation, but altering it to suit the tastes of the American palette. Authentic? No, not really. But over time they are cuisines that have come into their own.
Or it might just be a passing fad. Only time will tell.
Rudy Sanchez is a product marketing consultant based in Southern California. Once described by a friend as her “technology life coach,” he is a techie and avid lifelong gamer. When he’s not writing or helping clients improve their products, he’s either watching comedies on Netflix, playing the latest shooter or battle royale game or out exploring the world via Ingress and Pokémon Go.