The combination of sweet and salty flavors is a truly delightful one that captures our taste buds in a wide variety of culinary creations, some being indulgent and guilt-inducing to the scientifically fascinating.  

From the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich to the somewhat healthier prosciutto-wrapped melon, to a comical cronut burger, there's a certain level of magic from bringing these opposing flavors together. In this article, we're going to explore the captivating science behind the salty and sweet duo, along with a few ideas that use it to delicious effect.

The New Understanding of Taste Buds  

Over the last few years, scientists have gained a greater understanding of the tongue and the way it processes flavors.  A commonly held belief is that specific areas of the tongue are responsible for detecting different flavors.  However, recent research has shown a much more nuanced reality.  Those tiny bumps on our tongues known as papillae are home to thousands of taste cells equipped with five key flavors – sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami.  These cells are evenly spread throughout the tongue, meaning that the old notions of tastes being confined to certain areas are no longer accurate.

Special taste buds which are triggered by both salt and sweet tastes add another layer to this puzzle.  Scientific research has discovered that we have sugar receptors known as SGLT1 on the sweet-taste cells of the tongue.  Surprisingly, these receptors activate only in the presence of salt.  This discovery contradicts the old belief that these receptors were in the gut.  This occurrence explains why sweet tastes are heightened rather than being overpowered by salty ones when they both combine in our mouths. Chefs and food critics refer to using this dynamic duo as flavor layering. 


The Evolutionary Craving for Sweetness and Saltiness

Our desire for the dynamic sweet and salty duo is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history.  Faced with the challenges of survival, our ancestors learned to crave high-calorie food that provided a quick source of energy.  Sugar-rich foods played a critical role in aiding early humans endure periods of famine and scarcity.  The various studies conducted suggest that exposure to a metabolic byproduct of sugar known as fructose may have contributed to the accumulation of body fat vital for survival.

In today's age, our love for the sweet and salty goes beyond sustenance.  When the brain detects sugar touching the tongue, it releases dopamine, a complex neurotransmitter associated with rewarding stimuli in the brain.  So you could say that on at least a temporary basis, sugar makes us feel happy.  When that happy feeling fades, though, we're left craving more.  Studies have shown that these cravings are reinforced by the fact sweet treats such as soda can lower cortisol levels. 

On the other side of the spectrum, salt is a mineral closely associated with our bodily needs. Our bodies regularly excrete sodium, explaining why we crave it.  

Together, sweet and salty is a symphony of bliss for our brains.  It's a pairing that not only improves brain function but reduces stress.

Sensory-Specific Satiety and Variety

So we already understand that by providing us with essential minerals, boosting our brains, and lowering our stress levels there's no accident in the fact our bodies are conditioned to seek this powerful and positively delightful combination.  Another reason we experience is sensory-specific satiety – the phenomenon where we feel full after a meal but can somehow find just the right amount of space for dessert.  Consuming different tastes, flavors, and textures keeps our appetite stimulated, even when we think we're satisfied.  

Ultimately, the science behind this pairing is a testament to the intricate workings of our taste buds and the evolutionary cravings that have shaped our culinary preferences. So, the next time you indulge in the harmonious blend of sweet and salty flavors, remember that science grants you full permission to savor this delicious union, whether in the form of a creamy milkshake and fries or a thoughtfully crafted gourmet dish.


The Healthy Options

Sweet and salty combinations are quite often associated with junk food or snacks – salt and caramel ice cream, salted popcorn, smothered in buttery toffee, or as they sometimes do in Ireland, eat chocolate bars and potato chips simultaneously.  The food industry has at times capitalized on the combination with satisfying, indulgent, and sometimes borderline ridiculous treats that tickle our taste buds and keep us coming back for more.

All that aside, it is possible to create healthier snacks that provide both taste satisfaction and nutritional benefits.  Here are some healthy sweet and salty options.

  1. Greek Yogurt with Honey and Nuts: A fantastic snack, or quick breakfast option.  Greek yogurt is naturally tangy and pairs wonderfully with the sweetness of honey and the saltiness of nuts. With this option, you’ll get a good dose of protein, healthy fats, and vitamins.
  2. Trail Mix: You can buy pre-made trail mix from stores, or you can make your own from unsalted nuts such as walnuts or almonds, dried fruits like cranberries or raisins, and dark chocolate chips.  The nuts provide protein and healthy fats, while the chocolate and fruit will provide some sweetness.  As its name would suggest, trail mix is great for walking on trails, mountain climbing, or hiking as it provides a sometimes much-needed boost of energy.
  3. Apple Slices with Almond Butter: Another quick and easy-to-make snack, all you need to do is cut up an apple into slices and throw a dollop of almond butter onto your plate to dip your wedges in.  This is a very tasty mix of salty and sweet, whilst giving you fiber, vitamins, and healthy fats.
  4. Prosciutto-Wrapped Melon: Prosciutto (or fancy ham as my mother would call it) can be part of a mouthwatering appetizer when it's wrapped around sweet and juicy melon slices. The saltiness of the meat complements the natural sweetness of the fruit.
  5. Oatmeal with Fresh Fruit and a Pinch of Salt: Oatmeal can be so quick to make, with some people even using their slow cooker to effortlessly prepare it.  A great source of carbohydrates and fiber, the breakfast staple can have a boost of flavor added to it with fresh fruit such as berries or bananas along with a pinch of sea salt.  The salt brings out the sweetness of the fruit even more, while the whole meal offers sustained energy that will carry you through a good chunk of the day.
  6. Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Rosemary: A perfect side dish to roast chicken or beef, roasted sweet potato wedges topped with a touch of rosemary and sea salt are rich in both vitamins and fiber.
  7. Cottage Cheese with Pineapple and a Dash of Salt: Cottage cheese isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but those who love it might like to try it paired with fresh pineapple chunks and a sprinkle of salt.  This balanced snack offers both protein and vitamin C.
  8. Dark Chocolate-Covered Almonds: Dark chocolate with a high percentage (70% or more) of cocoa is packed with antioxidants and healthy fats. Lather it on almonds and you’ll find a great source of fiber that sees beautiful bitterness and saltiness intertwine. 
  9. Roasted Chickpeas with Paprika: Roast chickpeas with a sprinkle of paprika and a pinch of salt for a crispy, savory snack that offers a satisfying crunch and a hint of spice. 

When creating your sweet and salty combos, remember that portion sizes and quality of ingredients will affect just how much benefit the food can provide.  Wherever possible, opt for lightly salted options, and natural sweeteners (like honey or fresh fruit) and incorporate whole foods for added nutrients.  This should ultimately allow you to enjoy the contrast of flavors whilst supporting your overall health and well-being.


 The Naughty Choices

Ok, we’ve paid adequate lip service to try to utilize sweetness and saltiness together in healthier ways, but now and then you want to turn to the dark side of culinary choices, particularly as the salty-sweet convergence is responsible for birthing some truly iconic food items.  Chocolate-covered pretzels present an incredible contrast between smooth, rich, and sugary chocolate coating and crunchy, salty pretzels beneath.  What about a flavor that has become incredibly popular over the last decade – salted caramel?  Due to its ubiquitous nature, it can be found in everything from ice creams, and candies to even a syrup you might add to a freshly brewed latte. 

Here are a few more naughty but nice treats.

  1. Maple Bacon Donuts: The type of treat Homer Simpson would no doubt dream about.  The combined sweetness of maple glaze and the savory, smokey goodness of bacon.  You might be more familiar with maple bacon pancakes, but donuts knock the sweetness up a notch.
  2. Peanut Butter and Bacon Sandwich: Thought to be a favorite of the late great Elvis Presley, this unique twist on a classic, sandwich pairs creamy peanut butter with crispy bacon. The sweet and nutty peanut butter contrasts wonderfully with the salty and savory bacon, creating a satisfying and indulgent meal.  You could even add a banana for extra nutrients.
  3. Chocolate-Dipped Strawberries with Sea Salt: Dip fresh strawberries in melted chocolate, and add just a pinch of sea salt to elevate an old-timey classic.  You could have this with dark chocolate for a healthier option, but sometimes the trashy version with chocolate syrup and sprinkles is a little bit more fun.
  4. Salted Caramel Cheesecake: Cheesecake topped with a luxurious layer of salted caramel sauce combines the richness of cheesecake with the sheer boldness of salted caramel.
  5. Pretzel-Crusted Peanut Butter Cups: Reese’s peanut butter cups have been a well-regarded 
  6. S'mores Banana Boats: Split a banana in half, fill it with mini marshmallows and chocolate chips, and sprinkle a touch of sea salt. Wrap in foil and grill or bake until gooey and delicious 


When to Avoid Sweet and Salty

While sweet and salty flavor combinations can be incredibly appealing, there are situations where it's best to avoid them:

  1. Savory Dishes with Delicate Flavors: In recipes where the primary focus is on delicate and subtle flavors, adding sweetness or excessive saltiness can overwhelm and mask those subtleties. You can destroy the unique and wonderful subtleties found in a light seafood or fish dish.  Poached salmon, pan-seared sea bass, and grilled Mahi-Mahi will all need a more nuanced approach.
  2. Health Restrictions: Your doctor is probably the best person to speak to on these matters, but individuals with specific dietary restrictions, such as those with diabetes or hypertension, may need to limit their intake of sugar and salt. In these instances, you might find that certain herbs and spices will be much healthier.
  3. Allergies and Sensitivities: Another fairly obvious one - some people have allergies or sensitivities to certain sweeteners or salt substitutes. It's crucial to consider the dietary requirements and restrictions of your guests or diners when preparing food.
  4. Balancing Other Flavors: If a dish already contains a variety of contrasting flavors, such as spicy, sour, and umami, adding sweet and salty elements might make it overly complex. In these cases, maintaining a balance among the existing flavors may be more appropriate.

When to Use Sugar in Recipes

Sugar is a versatile ingredient that can enhance the flavor and texture of many dishes. Here are some situations when you should consider using sugar in recipes:

  1. Baking: Along with flour, sugar is a key ingredient in most baked goods, such as cakes, cookies, and pastries. Different types of sugar are used in different ways.  Granulated sugar doesn’t work as well as icing as icing sugar does.  Sugar provides sweetness, and moisture, and helps with browning and caramelization.
  2. Balancing Acidity: When working with acidic ingredients like tomatoes or citrus, a touch of sugar can help balance and mellow out the acidity.
  3. Preserving Fruits: Sugar is commonly used in canning and preserving fruits to extend their shelf life. It helps inhibit microbial growth and creates a syrupy texture.
  4. Enhancing Flavor: In some savory dishes, a small amount of sugar can elevate the overall flavor by providing the right amount of sweetness that balances other tastes.  You can also cut through the acidity of certain dishes.  A pinch of sugar can balance out the acid notes, making a sauce taste less sharp and more harmonious with the other ingredients.
  5. Desserts and Confections: It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but without sugar, many desserts like custards, ice creams, and candies just can’t be made.  Sugar is a fundamental ingredient for sweetness, texture, and structure.  In ice cream recipes, sugar not only sweetens the mixture but also helps lower the freezing point.  Candies like caramel and toffee rely on sugar as the primary ingredient, undergoing various stages of caramelization to achieve their textures.   

When to Use Salt in Recipes

Salt is a fundamental seasoning that plays a crucial role in cooking. Knowing when to use salt in recipes is essential for achieving the desired flavors:

  1. Seasoning Proteins: Salt enhances the natural flavors of meats, poultry, and seafood. It's often used to season these proteins before cooking to improve taste and moisture retention.
  2. Balancing Flavors: Salt wakes up our taste buds and can both balance and accentuate other flavors in a dish. It's commonly used to heighten the sweetness of desserts, like a touch of flaky sea salt on top of chocolate chips for contrast.  It can also cut through the bitterness of dark chocolate, or change the acidity of vegetables.
  3. Cooking Pasta and Vegetables: Adding salt to boiling water when cooking pasta or blanching vegetables can infuse them with subtle seasoning, enhancing their taste.  In a classic Italian dish, salt will contribute to the overall flavor of the dish and season the pasta as well.
  4. Fermentation: In processes like bread baking and fermentation, salt is used to control microbial growth, texture, and flavor development.  Salt regulates the fermentation process by slowing down certain bacteria whilst allowing others to thrive.  
  5. Preservation: Historically, salt has been used as a preservative for curing meats and fish. It draws out moisture and inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.
  6. Adjusting Seasoning: In many recipes, salt is added gradually and adjusted to taste. In homemade soups, for example, chefs might add a pinch at a time. This allows for fine-tuning the saltiness to suit individual preferences.

Understanding when to avoid sweet and salty, when to use sugar, and when to use salt in recipes empowers you to create well-balanced and delicious dishes tailored to your desired flavor profiles and dietary considerations.

So go ahead, indulge responsibly, and let your palate revel in the delightful world of sweet and salty sensations.