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Greg Hilburn, Gannett Louisiana

Louisiana, the U.S. capital of hot sauces, has exported its culinary obsession for the capsaicin-laden condiment to consumers throughout the country.

The U.S. hot sauce market has grown by 150 percent since 2000, according to a story by the Atlantic's Quartz.

That's more than mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup and barbecue sauce combined.

'We've become a nation of chili heads,' said Mike Coullard, president and chief executive of Panola Pepper Corp. in Lake Providence. 'And once you become a chili head, you never go back to bland.'

'Am I surprised?' said Grady 'Bubber' Brown, who founded Panola in 1983. 'I'm surprised it took this long. I'm surprised people can eat without it.'

Coullard said business at Panola is up 25 percent this year.

And other Louisiana companies like pepper sauce sales king McIlhenny Company, which produces Tabasco on Avery Island, Bruce Foods in New Iberia, which produces Original Louisiana Hot Sauce, and New Orleans icon Crystal also are benefiting from Americans' growing appetite for heat.

'As a company we've seen growth from consumers' desires for variety through flavoring,' said Virginia Brown Forestier, marketing manager for Bruce Foods, Original Louisiana Hot Sauce's parent company. 'Louisiana Hot Sauce provides good flavor without overpowering heat.'

Forestier and Coullard also agreed that a portion of the growth in hot sauce demand can be attributed to fast-food chains adding hot sauces for dipping items like chicken nuggets and the overall explosion of hot wings.

The market research firm IRI said U.S. hot sauce sales have increased 6 percent annually for the past 10 years.

'We absolutely believe the trend will continue,' Forestier said.

Louisiana celebrity chef Cory Bahr, a Food Network 'Chopped' champion who operates two restaurants in Monroe, said hot sauces can enhance almost any dish as a condiment or as an ingredient.

'Hot sauce just gives you something extra,' said Bahr, who will be one of the chefs promoting Louisiana food in a 2015 state tourism campaign. 'It's an absolute essential for your kitchen pantry and table.'

Bahr said his favorite Louisiana pepper sauces are Panola, which he grew up eating while living near Lake Providence, and Crystal, both of which he makes available in Restaurant Cotton.

'I can't think of anything better than putting a couple of drops of Crystal on a raw oyster in its half shell,' Bahr said.

And some of Louisiana's most famous celebrities want a piece of the action.

'Duck Dynasty' star Willie Robertson said he is working on creating a hot sauce to be part of a Duck Commander company food line.

'(Original) Louisiana Hot Sauce is my favorite,' Robertson said. 'I can't eat red beans and rice without it, and I always put it on my eggs.'

The state's signature condiment is so famous that Louisiana hot sauce has become a generic term. Louisiana's most basic hot sauces include cayenne chile peppers, vinegar and salt, although the explosion in demand has driven development of more tricked-up versions.

Allison Gault of West Monroe has a collection of more than 100 different hot sauces displayed in her kitchen.

'I started collecting about 20 years ago,' Gault said. 'They're great conversation pieces.'

Gault said she splashes her favorite sauces on almost everything. 'Ketchup is ketchup, but hot sauce adds flavor,' she said. 'We even mix hot sauce in our ketchup.

'But each sauce has subtle differences. That's what makes it fun to try.'

Louisiana favorites bringin' the heat:

Crystal Hot Sauce: Owned by the Baumer family, which has been producing this New Orleans favorite since 1923.

Original Louisiana Hot Sauce: Owned by Bruce Foods and produced more than 80 years in New Iberia.

Panola Pepper Sauce: Founded in 1983 by Grady 'Bubber' Brown in Lake Providence.

Tabasco: Founded in 1868 by Edmund McIlhenny, this world-renowned brand is still produced on Avery Island.

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