Food for Thought

The Science Behind Salt & Sweet

January 28, 2015

Everyone has a basic understanding of how we utilize salt and sugar, whether it’s cooking a steak or baking a chocolate chip cookie, the two popular “flavorings” have a clear juxtaposition.

Salt is used in most cooking procedures to enhance flavors because of its neutral state.  Since salt is a neutral  substance, it reacts and conforms to everything you use it with, especially fats and acids. Whether its a vinaigrette or boiling water, the purposes of salt is to start and/or finish the layering of ingredients.

Salt: Sodium chloride (NaCl)

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Sugar is used to sweeten dishes.  It will dissolve into the liquid component of any dish, depending on the temperature and saturation level of that liquid.When sugar has completely saturated a liquid it can no longer dissolve; UNLESS you were to heat the liquid which would allow for a “supersaturated” state– a.k.a more sugar dissolves.

Sugar: Sucrose (C12H22O11)

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One of the most recent trends sweeping the nation is the obsession with salty-sweet dishes.  Certainly the idea of combing salt and sugar is not new and has been in practice for centuries, but the hyper focus on using more salt than normal on and in sweeter dishes is definitely taking centerstage; and for good reason. It is delicious!

As a chef, I know that salt and sugar are famously harmonious together, but as the scientist I wish I were, I’d like to know WHY.



Well there are many theories that are of interest, but particularly two that I adhere to.

The first regards our good old SGLT1 receptor!  To summarize we have many sugar receptors on our tongue, but this receptor in particular can only sense sugar in the presence of salt. Hence, the combination of salt and sugar triggers a new taste sensation that would would not experience with out the presence of BOTH components.

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The second theory I believe, lies in our bodies’ natural craving of sustenance that will support healthy body functions.  As nutrient dense as sugar can be, our bodies simply need it.  Sugar represents energy. Our bodies need energy, hence when we consume sugar positive receptors go off, giving ourselves a hypothetical “pat on the back.”

The same goes with salt.  Unlike other nutrients we have no way of storing salt for future use, but we need it to survive. Therefor we constantly crave salt.

With this in mind, providing our bodies with Salt and Sugar in unison creates a DOUBLE WHAMMY effect of positive reception.

So there you have it. Carmel Corn anyone?

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  • Josh February 3, 2015 at 5:49 am

    I’ll take some Caramel Corn! Haha. Salty-Sweet definitely always hits the spot! Great post, Byron.