U.S. Is A Spicier Nation (Literally) Since 1970s Americans' spice consumption has grown almost three times as fast as the population in recent decades. Much of that growth is due to the country's changing demographics. Now, flavors that were once exotic and rare are found on the shelves in many groceries.
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U.S. Is A Spicier Nation (Literally) Since 1970s

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U.S. Is A Spicier Nation (Literally) Since 1970s

U.S. Is A Spicier Nation (Literally) Since 1970s

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As the demographic landscape of the U.S. changes, so has the American palate. Today, we're cooking with and sprinkling on spices that just a decade or two ago, most Americans couldn't even name.

NPR's Andrea Hsu begins her report at the headquarters of a company that's racking up sales because of this.

ANDREA HSU: Just north of Baltimore, I've put on a white jacket, safety goggles and a hairnet. I'm about to enter the most pungent place in America I've ever been.

Mr. JOE DILWORTH (Production Team Manager, McCormick): So Andrea, as you can see, this is a large packaging room right here. We have 12 production lines in our department of Spiceville.

HSU: Joe Dilworth is a production team manager for McCormick, the largest spice company in the world. The air inside this vast plant is warm, and heavy with the smell of garlic and oregano.

Mr. DILWORTH: The annual volume of the plant this year is going to be over a billion eaches, or a billion bottles produced in this plant.

HUS: Adding up to more than $3 billion in sales for this company last year. Among McCormick's best-sellers are black pepper, cinnamon and garlic powder.

Recently, it's rolled out things like roasted coriander and roasted cumin. With the help of some 40,000 consumer testers, the company has concluded that yes, people will buy those things.

Dr. MARIANNE GILLETTE (Food Scientist, McCormick): It's all about the consumer. We are very consumer-driven.

HSU: Food scientist Marianne Gillette has been with McCormick for more than 30 years. Part of her job is finding out what people like and dislike. She tests people for neophobia and neophilia - fear of new foods, and love of new foods.

Dr. GILLETTE: When we started some of our work with neophobes about five years ago, things like pomegranate and wasabi were scary to them - and much less so now because they're more mainstream.

HSU: Celine Endler, a marketing manager here, points out the success McCormick's had with chipotle chili pepper.

Ms. CELINE ENDLER (Marketing Manager, McCormick): We launched chipotle several years ago. I mean, if you look at it, it's up 70 percent in sales in five years. Before, people would not even know how to - how do you say chipotle?

HSU: The fast-food chain of the same name has no doubt helped with that, and says Peter Furth of the consulting firm FFF Associates, so have the changing demographics of America.

Mr. PETER FURTH (CEO, FFF Associates): We've had a very big influx of immigrant populations from Mexico, from the Far East, the Southeast Asia areas, from India.

HSU: Along with people have come a broad array of restaurants. At the same time, Furth says, food blogs and food TV have spurred more home cooking. Add it all together, and you end up with a much more adventurous national palate.

Furth has looked at numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and found that since the '70s, spice consumption has exploded.

Mr. FURTH: Chili peppers grew almost 600 percent.

HSU: Cumin consumption has grown by almost 300 percent; cinnamon, by 900 percent - and then there's ginger.

Mr. FURTH: Well, ginger has grown phenomenally. It's on the order of 1,600, 1,700 percent.

Ms. MONICA BHIDE (Food Writer): It's absolutely amazing. And it's actually so wonderful for me to hear.

HSU: Food writer Monica Bhide was born in India. Now, she lives just outside Washington, D.C., where she writes and teaches classes about spices.

Ms. BHIDE: When I came here 20 years ago, one of the things I used to do is every time I went back home, I'd come back with a suitcase full of spices, of lentils. Everything used to come from there.

HSU: Now, she gets everything from an Indian store nearby and from Amazon, where a tandoori chicken spice mix goes for just a few dollars.

Indian food does call for a lot of roasted spices, like the ones McCormick is selling. But Bhide says she prefers to do the roasting at home.

Ms. BHIDE: When you heat a pan and add a little bit of cumin and it starts sizzling, the whole room feels so toasty, smells amazing.

HSU: Now, that's an experience you can't put in a bottle.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(Soundbite of Spice Girls singing "Spice Up Your Life")

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign)

MONTAGNE: And that's the business news on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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