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Why Do Sweet and Salty Foods Taste So Good Together?

We asked an expert about why the sweet-salty combination is such an irresistibly tasty treat.
Why Do Sweet and Salty Foods Taste So Good Together?Jason Donnelly

Whether it’s chocolate-covered pretzels, ice cream with sea salt sprinkled on top, a cheddar and caramel popcorn mixture, or even something as simple as trail mix, we love when our palates get a hint of both sweet and salty in a single mouthful.

But why are foods that marry sweet and salty ingredients together so delicious? There’s a reason you can’t put down those famous Alison Roman salted butter and chocolate chunk shortbread cookies that became a viral baking hit.

We asked registered dietitian and chef Jessica Swift to explain the science behind why these types of foods are so irresistible.

Why does the combination of sweet and salty foods taste so good?

“It’s like the perfect marriage—the yin and yang of food combinations,” says Swift. “This combo seems to cover all of the bases and satisfy your cravings.”

Is there science behind the magic of sweet and salty foods?

“The receptors responsible for transporting sugars to cells can only do so with sodium present,” explains Swift. “Research suggests that this may be the reason we respond to the sweet and salty combination so well.”

This is why salt seems to brighten up the taste of something sweet—the receptors respond to the sugar when it’s paired with salt, so you register that sweetness. See, that pinch of salt in your homemade baked goods really does make a big difference.

In other words, in order to fully taste a sweet honey-flavored yogurt, you may need to toss a handful of salty peanuts into the mix. No wonder parfaits are such a go-to breakfast item!

Does eating sweet or salty first yield optimal taste results?

Swift doesn’t believe the order matters. She notes that “taste receptors respond to specific taste, regardless of the order.”

What is one of the best sweet and salty combinations you’ve ever had?

“Mole with pickled onions,” says Swift. “The saltiness of the onions with the slightly sweet mole sauce is amazing.”

Do you have a suggestion for an easy sweet and salty snack?

“Popcorn with a touch of sea salt and a few dark chocolate chips,” says Swift. “Whenever I am craving the sweet and salty combo, this hits the spot every time.”

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