When cravings strike, most people reach for one of two foods: a sweet treat or a salty snack. For some of us, though, we seek satisfaction from having both tastes in the same bite.
What is it about these two that pairs so well and that we find so tantalizing? According to Brenda Mortensen, food product development director and food scientist for sister brand Cheryl’s Cookies, the answer, by and large, is science. And the connection between how our body works and the salivating sweet and salty delights we want to consume is truly fascinating.
Reaching for the ice cream, potato chips, or frosted cookies after dinner or when we settle in for a night of binge-watching your favorite television show isn’t just about succumbing to an urge — it’s about giving in to basic chemical desires, satisfying biological functions, and serving our psychological needs, Mortensen says.
We talked to a baker and food scientist to find out what actually makes sweet and salty snacks so crave-inducing and satisfying.
Sugar and salt satisfy us at a chemical level
So, why is it that sugar and salt are what tend to come to mind when we experience cravings? One part of it is the taste itself, of course. The other is that our bodies are craving sugar and salt because of chemicals in our brains. Crazy, right?
“Monosaccharides like glucose [sugar] are our cells’ preferred energy source, and salt is necessary to our cell function, so when we taste sweet or salty, our brain says, ‘Yes! Eat that!'” Mortensen says.
The chemicals released when we indulge in sweet and salty foods — like, say, salty pretzels dipped in decadent chocolate — make us feel happy and motivated to seek out more of what triggered that feeling.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences even found that certain sweet taste cells found on the tongue only activate when they come into contact with salt.
Denise Spooner, chef instructor at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, says it best about our predilection for sweet and salty foods: “When in combination, these two flavors are almost dancing with each other on our taste buds.”
This may appear obvious, but there’s more going on here than it seems.
Salty-sweet flavors are literally bringing all things culinary together. It’s like when the powerhouse superheroes join forces — nothing can get in the way.
Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts
Sweet and salty cravings are often at their strongest when we are dieting or have gone for a long stretch without nutrition. The longer we go without fueling our body, the more it will crave quick energy in the form of cookies and popcorn and frosting (oh my!).
In other words, our body is hungry, and to satisfy that hunger, most people will turn to delectable delights for a quick energy boost. After all, the super duo of salty and sweet snacks is the ultimate desirable combination.
Stressed? Dehydrated? Try a salty snack
If we’re exceptionally stressed, there’s a chance our sodium levels may be low, and our body is searching for a salty fix. When this occurs, we’re likely to crave a salty snack to replenish our sodium stores.
It’s also possible that our longing for salt is due to dehydration. When this occurs, drinking a glass of water is a good idea, but opting for a salty snack afterward can help ensure we quench our thirst and our craving.
Then again, our body and its level of hydration and sodium may be perfectly fine. Sometimes, we crave sweet-salty deliciousness simply because they comfort us. After all, is there anything more satisfying after a long day than settling down with a fresh-baked cookie?
The craving can be learned
The natural tendency of our body to desire certain flavor combinations satisfies a chemical and, arguably, evolutionary need for survival. However, not all things come down to cellular science. Sometimes, the explanation is more personal.
Sweet and salty foods often strike an emotional chord. “I am drawn to sweet foods because that is what my mother craved,” Brenda says, reflecting on her childhood. “She shared with me. I felt better. I saw that she felt better, so now I equate sweet with feeling better.”
The same holds true of her salty cravings. “My dad went for the salt in the form of pretzels,” she continues, “and, believe me, I am very excited that this fall we [Cheryl’s Cookies] are introducing our new chocolate chip caramel pretzel cookie!”
So, those cravings we experience may have an explanation deeper than even science can explain. They could be tied to childhood memories, emotions, and personal experiences that affect us on a deeply individual level.
No matter what the exact cause of our cravings may be, we can all agree with Erin Kanagy-Loux, a chef instructor at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. “Salty-sweet flavors are literally bringing all things culinary together,” she says. “It’s like when the powerhouse superheroes join forces — nothing can get in the way.”