Sweet and Salty

I've got a thing for things that are sweet and salty. Caramels with sea salt. French fries with plenty of ketchup. Peanut butter and strawberry jelly. Melon with prosciutto. Is there anything better to eat on a hot summer day than a ripe cantaloupe dressed with some cured meat, thinly sliced? I think not.

But why do sweet and salty sing so well together? Why do we add a pinch of salt to chocolate cake, or not fully taste the sweetness of a tomato until it's been sprinkled with sodium chloride? And why does bread without salt taste so bland?

The first thing to understand is how we perceive saltiness. It's an elegantly simple setup: sodium ion (Na+) channels are perched on the surface of the tongue. When sodium chloride enters the mouth, it dissolves in saliva and then directly alters the membrane potential of the taste cell. The end result is an influx of positively charged sodium ions, which depolarize the cell and trigger an action potential. The brain is told that we've tasted something salty.

Sweet is a more complicated taste sensation. It begins when a sweet tastant (glucose, fructose, sucralose, etc.) binds to a G-protein coupled receptor, which then triggers an enzymatic cascade. But the fast cellular process ends up in the same place, as the taste receptor cells start to depolarize. (That's a fancy way of saying they increase the amount of positive ions on the inside of their membrane. This accumulation of voltage is what allows them to pass on the electrical message to other neurons.)

But back to the salty-sweet conundrum. Why does melon and prosciutto taste so good? Although the sweet taste receptor seems to be a G-protein coupled receptor, there's also evidence that applying a sodium-channel blocker (TTX) can dramatically inhibit the activity of all taste receptors, suggesting that sodium plays a key role in the cellular detection of every taste (and not just the taste of salty things). While previous work has emphasized the role of potassium ions and calcium ions in the depolarization of sweet taste receptors, I wonder if sodium ions might also play a role. Perhaps, and this is a pretty big perhaps, the extra concentration of salt when added to a dark chocolate souffle or a caramel makes it easier for the sweet taste receptors to fire an action-potential, since there are more sodium ions floating around the apical membrane. This would also explain why food without any salt is so hopelessly boring: it might be literally harder for our various taste receptors to get excited. Just a thought.

The other alternative is that the amplification of sweet by salt occurs downstream, at some later stage of sensory processing. Who knows? All I know is that I'm having a watermelon and feta salad for lunch.

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There was a fad for chocolate & salt snacks last year in Japan - I might see if I can pick up some salty chocolate bars and experiment...

I'm sure that the sweet/salt combination is one of the prime reasons for the perennial popularity of bacon and ham.

Another of my favorite sweet/salt food combinations is roquefort, bleu, or gorgonzola cheese with a juicy, ripe pear.

The sweet&salty taste of Philipine Mango is great on my morning yogurt

By Oftenwrongted (not verified) on 01 Jul 2009 #permalink

For the non-cognescenti, TTX is tetrodotoxin. It is the toxic agent in puffer fish poisoning (fugu), and is the principle component of "zombie powder." While it was first identified in puffer fish, it is actually the product of certain bacteria such as Pseudoalteromonas tetraodonis, Pseudomonas and Vibrio. As a potent sodium-channel blocker it has proven to be a valuable research tool.

Philipine pickled Mango meets the sweet/salty recipe for my toast and as a topping for green-tea ice cream and yogurt

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 01 Jul 2009 #permalink

I'm an expat Brit in the US. Imagine my joy when I discovered my local market carried both Cheshire cheese and Branston Pickle, both from the UK! If you are not a Brit, and have not tried this yet, avoid the mistake of thinking that any hard cheese will do, or that 'pickle' implies a green vinegary relish. Go for the real stuff only.

Here's why.

Cheshire Cheese only comes from Cheshire, and Cheddar Cheese only comes from the Cheddar Gorge, both in the UK. Both are natural partners to Branston Pickle (aka Brickle), although they are quite different from each other. What makes them special, and different from any other cheeses misleadingly labelled as 'cheddar', lies in the 'weeds' growing in the meadows on which the cows who provide the milk for the cheeses munch.

I also found an idiosyncratic mix: cheddar again, but with Orange Marmalade on it. Again, does not work with the rubber-labelled-cheddar you will find in the typical supermarket here.

More normal: cottage cheese with pineapple chunks and pepper.

So I'm a cheese snob. So what. My taste-buds. But everybody I have introduced to these has loved them.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 01 Jul 2009 #permalink

I like your thinking on salt potentially making it easier for the sweet taste receptors to fire an action-potential. Thanks for sharing!

By Thomas Schroeder (not verified) on 02 Jul 2009 #permalink

a classic from my grade school youth; chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream cups with crushed Fritos chips on top; classic sweet and salty