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Our Blog: Chocolate Talk

Why Salty and Sweet Belong Together

Salted Caramels

If you’re the type of person who likes chocolate covered pretzels, maple bacon, and Hawaiian pizza, you understand the powerful appeal of foods that are both salty and sweet. It’s an addictive combination, and one of our favorites at Hedonist. From our famous salted caramels to our milk chocolate sea salt bark to our hazelnut truffle, we never get tired of this combination. But what makes this pairing so uniquely addicting? After all, sugar and salt are completely different flavors - so why do they make such a happy couple?

The answer has to do with the wondrous science of taste. For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that the human tongue was divided up into five areas, each one responsible for sensing one of five flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory/umami. However, now we know that all the taste buds on your tongue can taste all five flavors - and they do a pretty good job at it. In fact, each one of your tastebuds has about 50 to 100 taste cells, which do all the tasting work.

These tasting cells do a lot more than deliver delicious flavors (although that’s important too). Our taste buds evolved to help us identify which foods will help us and which will harm us. Very sour or bitter flavors alert us to the presence of compounds that might make us sick, so we usually avoid them. On the flip side, we’re hardwired to crave sweet foods because they’re carbohydrate-rich and full of energy. We’re also fond of salt, because sodium is a necessary nutrient.

Logically then, when we taste two flavors we love at the same time, the experience is even better than tasting each of them separately. Barb Stuckey, author of TASTE: Surprising Stories and Science About Why Food Tastes Good, compares this marriage of flavors to “hearing beautiful music while sniffing rose petals: two positive sensory stimuli.”

However, that’s not the end of the story. Salt is not just an essential nutrient we’re hardwired to crave - it’s also a flavor enhancer. At low concentrations, salt suppresses bitter flavors and increases sweet, sour, and umami flavors. Chefs call this interplay “flavor layering.” This is why your cookies taste bland when you forget that teaspoon of salt in the dough, and why kettlecorn, with just the faintest whisper of salt, is so addictive.

The final reason the combination of salty and sweet is irresistible is a little phenomenon called “sensory specific satiety.” Because humans are historically omnivorous, we’re built to crave a variety of taste experiences. When we taste the same flavor over and over again, we tire of it. Binge on birthday cake and eventually you’ll yearn for a salty chunk of barbecue, and vice versa. But when flavor layering is at work, salty and sweet meld together and don’t satiate you with one particular taste. And that’s what keeps you coming back for more.

 
Pleasure, handcrafted. Hedonist Artisan Chocolates are handmade with fresh ingredients to give as gifts or indulge yourself.
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