Spices fueled ancient trade routes across vast continents and seas. They enriched Renaissance city-states and beckoned explorers to the New World. And now the $3.6 billion industry is heating up grocery aisles, with consumers picking up more spices than ever before.
According to Chicago-based market research company Mintel, the spices and seasonings market shifted from 2 percent growth in 2006 and 2007 to 11 percent between 2007 and 2009. Mintel predicts continued interest in gourmet and ethnic cooking will fuel the seasonings market to the tune of 18 percent growth between 2011 and 2014. Stay on top of the following trends and innovations that are spicing up the market.
Connect with origin
Organic and natural seasonings are hot: Mintel reports that nearly 700 organic or natural spice products were launched between 2005 and September 2009. But as consumers become increasingly sensitive to the economic and social conditions in spice-producing countries—India, Indonesia and Malaysia—spice companies are moving beyond just organic labels and developing the sort of fair trade and direct-trade programs seen with products like coffee.
"Many of the areas we are sourcing from are developing countries, and many growers are small-scale farmers," says Steve Krusie, spokesman for Frontier Natural Products Co-op, an herbs and spice company in Norway, Iowa. Krusie says these farmers face challenges such as food-safety standards, sustainability practices and traceability. That's why Frontier developed a certification program called Well Earth to help farmers produce high-quality, sustainable and fair trade–certified crops—and connect them with consumers via detailed origin stories on the company website.
Bulk spices are the way to go, says Krusie. He's seeing double-digit growth in this category, which he says until recently was flat. It helps that the reduced packing means cost savings for retailers and consumers, as well as smaller environmental impact. Krusie points out that self-dispensing bulk systems often feature either smaller containers or gravity-feed bins, which, when combined with high product turnover, means retailers shouldn't be too concerned about bulk spices losing freshness.
Most importantly, Krusie says, buying bulk spices is fun. "It really can set your store apart by creating this go-to area within your store—this unique, fun place where shoppers can go and really experiment and smell the spices."
Stock exotic flavors
Consumers are branching out in the spice aisle, whether that means trying fusion flavors like Frontier's Black Pepper with Chipotle or dabbling in ethnic seasonings. In particular, Krusie has seen an upswing in Mexican spices corresponding with more home cooking. "Hispanic foods tend to be some of the simpler meals to prepare," he says. "And the more you cook at home, the more variety you want."
Even salt, which hasn't experienced the same overall growth as other spices because of concerns about high sodium, has received a boost thanks to the growing popularity of gourmet flavors like smoked sea salt and Himalayan pink salt, says Shawn Donnille, vice president of Mountain Rose Herbs, a Eugene, Ore.-based bulk herb and spice manufacturer. "Our exotic salts and peppercorns are outselling all our other seasonings," he says. "Stock exotic salts from all around the world. It's the best thing you could possibly do."
Be aware of special diets
As the raw and vegan food movements continue to grow, more shoppers are unwilling to accept the common practice of companies sterilizing their spices using high-heat treatments, or mass-market seasoning blends that contain animal stock. "That's where we fit in and do extremely well," Donnille says. Since Mountain Rose's spices aren't sterilized, are vegetarian and manufactured in a nearly gluten-free facility, the alternative food movement now accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of sales. "Our approach is that by sterilizing spices, you are compromising flavor profile and color profile, and that's absolutely intolerable for raw foodists," Donnille says.
Highlight nutritional benefits
Norristown, Pa.-based VitaminSpice offers blends like garlic, cinnamon and red pepper that are infused with multivitamins. "This is an opportunity where nutritious meets delicious," says CEO Edward Bukstel. "We are not pretending to take over the multivitamin; this is just a way to make sure that throughout the day people get increased nutritional value."
Donnille is skeptical about such products. "The core organic consumer is savvy," he says. "They know they get their nutrients from food; they don't need to inject nutritional additives into their seasonings."
Make sure you have what customers are looking for by stocking up on these hot spices.
Frontier Pepper Fusion Grinders
Built-in adjustable grinders contain peppercorns that have been rolled in one of four spices—cayenne, garlic, lemon or chipotle—which preserve the spices’ volatile oils until they’re ready to be used.
Simply Organic Mole Sauce Mix
This new Southwestern mix uses dried chilies, cumin, cinnamon, onion, oregano and fair-trade Dutch cocoa to recreate the complex taste of mole sauce.
Mountain Rose Black Lava Salt
This complex salt is infused with activated charcoal, which can help the body remove impurities.
Morton and Bassett Organic Spices
This new line of certified-organic seasonings is also kosher certified, salt free and contain no preservatives.
VitaminSpice Crushed Red Pepper
This blend is infused with a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Joel Warner is a Denver-based freelance writer.