Top 5 all-time 'contrasting' food flavor pairings

April 11, 2012 | by Darrel Suderman

When you think about flavor pairings, do you think first about 'compatible flavors' or do you think first about 'contrasting flavors?'

Historically, food products with contrasting flavors have represented the most successful new food products in the United States and worldwide. Too much attention has been placed on complementary food flavor pairings such as wine and cheeses.

The study of contrasting food flavor pairings can provide valuable understanding for new research chefs and food technologists, and it can explain why your company's new product introductions are successes or failures. I consider the application of contrasting flavor pairings to be one of the Top 10 "Principles of Food Science", much like the Laws of Physics (Law of Gravity). Understanding and applying these Principles of Food Science can make your new product innovation work easy and be extraordinarily successful. I like to include these principles whenever possible to my students at Johnson & Wales University.

Here's my list of the Top 5 all time great contrasting flavor pairings:

Salt and Pepper - they are a fixture on every restaurant table.

Sweet and Basic - the classic example is Oreo Cookies.

Sweet and Sour - common flavor pairing on Asian menus and others.

Salt and Vinegar – found on chips and snackables.

Salt and Sweet – salty caramel products are currently popular.

This list could go on and on, but let's take a deeper dive into what makes them so popular. If you notice, most of the contrasting flavor pairings accentuate two of our basic flavors – the most popular are sweet, salty and sour. You can get even more 'bang for your buck' when you add contrasting colors and textures to an existing contrasting flavor pairing. The resulting food product becomes a true "eating experience." My best example is Oreo or Hydroxy cookies. But before we talk about Oreo cookies, let's talk about the all time flavor.

Salt and Pepper - they are a fixture on every restaurant table. We understand that salt accentuates almost every flavor, but the spicy heat from piperine sends a message to the stomach to increase hydrochloric acid to accelerate digestion.

Sweet and Basic – Oreo cookies are my favorite. Not only do Oreo cookies have the well-know contrasting sweet and basic taste contrasts, but they also have a soft filling and crispy cookie exterior, and a contrasting white and black colors.

Sweet and Sour – We crave sweet and sour chicken, pork and beef in about any meal format. I think part of our contrasting flavor fascination is the sequence with which we taste the flavors on our pallet. It makes eating fun. The candy industry has probably leveraged contrasting flavors like sweet and sour more than any other product area in the food industry.

Salt and Vinegar – This combination could easily be called Salt and Sour. I include it on the Top 5 list even though this flavor contrast seems to be centered on the salty chip product category. But nonetheless, this flavor combo is wildly popular in regional areas in our country.

Salt and Sweet – As I stated, Starbucks and Caribou Coffee salted caramel coffee products have made this pairing a recent favorite. But other baked products with the salty sweet combination include Sweet and Salty Brownies, Chocolate Dipt Pretzels, and Salted Chocolate Chip products.

That's my Top 5 contrasting flavor list, what would you add?

Please contact me at or follow the Food Innovation Institute website ( for information on two three Food Innovation 3-day workshops in Denver, Colorado:

April 30 – May 2, 2012: Food Innovation Business Principles & Processes

May 14 – 16, 2012: How to Commercialize Your New Product Ideas.

July 9 – 11, 2012: How to Start Pop-Up Restaurant and Food Truck Business

Topics: Food & Beverage , Trends / Statistics

Darrel Suderman / Darrel Suderman, Ph.D., is president of Food Technical Consulting and founder of Food Innovation Institute. He has held senior R&D/QA leadership positions at KFC, Boston Market, Church's Chicken and Quiznos and led KFC’s development team of “Popcorn Chicken”, now a $1B international product –invented by Gene Gagliardi.
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