The sensation of taste can be categorized into five basic groups—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami—with the tongue identifying each type in a distinct way. And keep in mind that it was not really that long ago that taste was perceived four ways with the somewhat mysterious umami the most recent addition to that club known as the Basic Tastes.
However, even with the addition of umami, I would argue that this group is actually much larger if we were to consider all the taste pairings that are possible, especially the sweet and savory ones, as this article will address. Or if we wish to simplify matters, we might (perhaps with a little tongue in cheek) call this group “swavory.” That might open the door to other interesting namings as well. However, the real point here is that I think it is essential that we focus on these pairings if we are to fully comprehend the realm of today’s food formulating, which is so influenced by different global tastes that are evolving into the mainstream.
It would be an understatement to say that when sweet and savory tastes are combined or doubled up, they make for a dimension of flavor like no other. And it is precisely because the borders between the different taste sensations are blurring that they become so exciting in the formulation. Does that caramel have a salty taste? Is that ginger I detect? Or pink grapefruit with a spicy kick? With all of the different taste sensations possible, the five basic tastes remind me of the Chicago seasons. While we technically have four seasons (winter, spring, summer, and fall), in reality, every month is a separate season—a combination of the previous month’s weather and the next month’s. And with these 12 seasons—some of them changing in a matter of days or even hours—living in Chicago may be unpredictable, but it sure is exciting. And the same thing holds true for food formulating with the taste groups. (I might add that it is only fitting that “the Windy City” is the home of so many different ethnic cuisines.)
For consumers who can’t really choose between sweet and salty, more products are appearing in the marketplace that can satisfy both moods. For example, Mars Chocolate North America recently launched its M&M’s® Brand Snack Mix, which can satisfy consumers’ desire for a creamy-crunchy-sweet-and-salty snack all in one bag. The product is available in three options: M&M’s Brand Milk Chocolate Candies Snack Mix (M&M’s Brand Milk Chocolate Candies, mini chocolate chip cookies, peanuts, and mini pretzel twists), M&M’s Brand Dark Chocolate Candies Snack Mix (M&M’s Brand Dark Chocolate Candies, raisins, almonds, and mini pretzel twists), and M&M’s Brand Peanut Chocolate Candies Snack Mix (M&M’s Brand Peanut Chocolate Candies, mini shortbread cookies, almonds, and mini pretzel twists).
Burger King recently launched a “bacon sundae” for the summer; it’s made up of vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, caramel, bacon crumbles, and a piece of bacon. The dessert shows another way that bacon can be combined with ingredients such as chocolate, caramel, or fruit to provide a formulation with a sweet-savory sensation. Furthermore, bacon’s smoky saltiness can help enhance the sweetness and flavor of ingredients such as chocolate. The bacon sundae and the role of bacon in the creation of sweet-savory formulations is the topic for a recent blog post (see sidebar at end of this article).