The Science Behind Why Sweet & Salty Foods Taste So Good
Sweet and salty: They're two things that go together like Jacques and Julia, the Queen and her martini, and (literally) peanut butter and jelly. And though they're polar opposites on the flavor spectrum, that hasn't stopped us from putting the word salted in front of every trending dessert or dipping french fries into a chocolate Frosty. Here's why this beloved combination works so well—and, more importantly, why people who put pineapple on pizza actually are onto something.
① Salt Makes Things Taste Better, Not Saltier
From a cooking standpoint, we know that salt—in the right amount—enhances flavor, as opposed to just making things taste, well, salty. It's why forgetting about that innocent half teaspoon while baking will give you bland chocolate chip cookies. Salt helps bring out the caramelized, toffee notes of brown sugar, while making the cocoa in your chocolate chips taste richer and more complex.
Scientifically, you have your taste buds to thank for this. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that in addition to being able to sense sweet and salty, our tongues have additional sweetness receptors that activate only when sugar is in the presence of salt. So as contradictory as it seems, even just a sprinkle of salt on a watermelon wedge can make the fruit taste even sweeter.
② Our Bodies Naturally Crave Both Salt and Sugar
We're hardwired to crave junk food (which, surprise, tends to be loaded with salt and sugar). According to Barb Stuckey, the author of TASTE: Surprising Stories and Science About Why Food Tastes Good, we've evolved to gravitate to sweet foods since they're traditionally the most energy rich (read: high in calories). Our bodies are also conditioned to like salty foods since sodium is an essential mineral we need to function.
Killing these two biological needs with one stone thus becomes extremely satisfying, with Stuckey comparing it to "hearing beautiful music while sniffing rose petals: two positive sensory stimuli." It explains why it's so easy for us to plow through a bag of kettle corn—and why trail mix is just garbage without the M&Ms.
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