As bell pepper consumption continues to increase throughout the U.S., the industry is moving to meet demand. Pepper producers continue to add acreage, the foodservice industry uses more peppers than ever before and retailers offer bigger display spaces and greater selection.

Bolstered by countless cooking shows, exposure to different world cuisines, expanding taste palates and a greater variety offered year-round, consumers pushed the sales of bell peppers up 5.7% in 2011, according to data from West Dundee, Ill.-based Nielsen Perishables Group.

“We are encouraged by the growth in popularity of peppers,” said Aaron Quon, greenhouse category director at Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group. “They are becoming less of an impulse purchase and more of a mainstay.”

Retailers are not only building larger displays but also are cross-merchandising with other ingredients, such as salsas, salads and sandwiches to suggest the versatility of peppers, Quon said.

“(Peppers) are among the most eye-catching items in the produce department, and between retailer support and the trend for consumers to add more interest and flavor to their meals, peppers are enjoying more limelight than ever,” he added.

According to The Packer’s Fresh Trends 2012, bell peppers continue to have a strong following. They were the No. 3 item that consumers reported buying that they previously had not purchased. Overall, bell peppers were the No. 5 most-purchased vegetable at retail. Volume of peppers sold at retail was up 3.9%, and the average price per pound for peppers was up 1.7% in 2011, according to Nielsen data.

“Peppers have really been increasing in popularity for the past 10 years,” said Tom Sheppard, vice president of Sheppard Farms and president of its sister company, Eastern Fresh Growers Inc., a produce wholesaler in Cedarville, N.J.

“There are more colors and variety out there for people to choose from, plus people are eating healthier,” he said.

The health benefits of all peppers are abundant: lowering the risk of certain cancers, aiding against vision loss, boosting immunity and guarding against heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. Armed with that knowledge, consumers seek out peppers, boosting sales at retail.

Kevin Batt, director of sales for BC Hot House Foods, Inc, Surrey, British Columbia, said the combination of cooking shows, marketing from retailers and Web-based recipes has helped.

“Pepper sales continue to increase as more and more people are reaching beyond the traditional green bell after realizing that the red, yellow and orange bells are sweet and bursting with flavor,” he said.

It’s not just bell peppers enjoying a surge in popularity. Specialty pepper sales have steadily increased as well, with purchasing likelihood increasing nearly one-third from last year.

“The interest in hot peppers has really picked up,” said Damon Barkdull, sales and business development at Gilroy, Calif.-based Uesugi Farms Inc. “Every year, it seems there’s more interest than the previous year.

“(The market) used to be driven by Hispanic sales, but now with Food Network shows and more information out there, more and more people are trying hot peppers. Areas that wouldn’t normally try peppers, like the Midwest, are now trying them.”