Spice Usage Soars, Seasoning U.S. Melting Pot

America is a work in progress with the landscape, the people and the culture constantly changing. So is our food, getting spicier by the day.

Stuff few had never even heard of a few years ago is now going into recipes we cook, including spices with strange names from far away places, CBS News Correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports.

The air is thick with exotic aromas at the McCormick spice company outside Baltimore, the largest in the country. The factory runs 24 hours a day and for good reason.

McCormick estimates in the '50s the average American spice drawer had 10 spices. Today the number's grown to 40.

"People consume almost a billion pounds of spices a year," McCormick's Lori Robinson said.

Twenty-five years ago it was half that. Spice experts say it's the melting pot that's producing spicier meals. As the country becomes more diverse, tastes change.

"The cayennes and habanero sauces and spices, the things that really burn their mouth," said Alfonso Rivera, manager of El Centro Restaurant in New York City.

Meals that used to be seasoned with salt and pepper now include everything from allspice to za'atar.

During a five-year period, the amount of paprika imported into the United States rose from roughly 27 million pounds per year to almost 55 million pounds. Ginger has gone from 62 million pounds to almost 94 million pounds.

In scientifically controlled conditions, including special lighting that disguises the color of the samples, professional tasters at a McCormick testing center make sure everything tastes just right

Keeping up with changing tastes is a full time job, so the spice people keep an eye on ordinary people at the testing center through a one-way mirror. They do this 150 times a year.

When CBS News came for a visit, they were testing chili, but nobody is expecting any surprises.

"People are craving spicier, bolder foods, and I don't see the tables turning," Robinson said.

Americans are taking the old saying to heart, and if variety is the spice of life a larger variety of spices apparently makes life livelier.

  • Richard Schlesinger

    Correspondent, "48 Hours," "CBS Evening News"