Sweets are, without question, delicious. And everyone needs a salty snack once in a while. Put the two together, and you have a formidable treat on your hands.
“There are a few reasons why the combination of sweet and salty is pure magic!” says Mark Mackey, chief chocolatier, Ethel M Chocolates. “Scientists recently discovered specific taste receptors on our tongues, which are specifically activated by sodium. These receptors not only activate the sense of saltiness, but the others as well (sweet, sour, bitter).”
Salt is a natural flavor enhancer, which is another reason those other senses are enhanced when it’s present, says Mackey.
“Maybe that’s the reason why so many people love our pecan brittle, because the salty pecans help accentuate the sweet flavor of the brittle,” he adds.
Lots of companies have caught on to the fact that pairing sweet and salty can pay off. That’s because combining flavors can provide a delicate balance of tastes while allowing candy makers to show off one particular flavor profile.
“In the market, we see companies mixing existing complementary products in a variety of ways. These combinations often include cheese flavors mixed with sweet flavors, such as caramel, or a simple salty base combined with a confectionery profile,” says Phillip Kazer, executive v.p. of sales and marketing, Mikesell’s Snack Food Co. “These flavor combinations allow the creator to have their preferred flavor profile stand out, be it salty or sweet.”
Not only does the pairing provide the opportunity to highlight specific flavor profiles, but the combination of sweet and salty can also broaden the snack’s reach.
“As the availability of flavor combinations increases, those who enjoy snacks are constantly searching for something that satisfies their cravings and is still fun and interesting,” says Kazer.
And as products reach larger areas of the snacking public, they also tap into the market of consumers looking for increased shareability. More consumers are looking for snacks they can enjoy together with friends and family. Sweet and salty snacks can satisfy a niche by providing a treat that appeals to children, adults, and teens.
The growing popularity of sweet and salty snacks accompanies the increasing ambiguity in the division between sweets and snacks.
“There used to be a clearer distinction between snacks and confections, where snacks were salty and/or savory and confections were sweet,” says Elliott Callahan, master chocolatier, Fannie May. “This is still true, but the distinction is becoming more ambiguous.”
According to Callahan, that quiet shift is forcing traditional confectioners to think outside the box and get creative with their flavor profiles.
“Combinations like chipotle and chocolate are becoming mainstream,” he says. “Gradually we are going to see chocolate becoming a more common savory ingredient, and consumers will start to think in less binary terms about sweet versus savory.”
At Fannie May, it all comes down to pairing the salt component with chocolate or caramel but that trend, too, has shifted. It was all about sea salt and caramel at first, followed by pretzels and caramel, and now the trend is shifting to nuts, seeds, and other “health halo” inclusions, says Callahan.
That shift has led to the creation of some of Fannie May’s new products like the Cinnamon and Cayenne Bark Bar, Nut and Seed Bark Bars featuring sea salt and other savory inclusions like almonds and pepitas, and several new items featuring a “super seed” blend.
At Mikesell’s, the idea is to give consumers the chance to try something new made of products and flavors they’re already familiar with. That was the rationale behind their Chocolate Covered Chips, available in dark and milk chocolate varieties, as well as behind their new Salted Caramel Puffcorn Delites.
“Salted Caramel Puffcorn Delites combines the saltiness of our Original Puffcorn with a confectionery caramel flavor,” says Kazer. “This combination offers snackers a mostly sweet snack with a hint of salt that melts in your mouth.”
Outside of the typical flavors for sweet and salty combinations, though, spicy and smoky ones have both been gaining traction.
“Spicy ingredients (varietal chiles and peppers like guajillo, chipotle, and habanero) have gained a lot of steam in terms of popularity and are being added to sweet and salty snacks,” says Mackey. “Middle Eastern spices are also a popular addition as well. The sensation of heat that these ingredients provide enhances the sweet-and-salty sensorial experience.”
Items like smoked maple syrup and smoked sea salt have also made their way into the category, he says. Ethel M’s Smoked Sea Salt Caramel, created by Mackey for Father’s Day, were well-received for that very reason.
And as far as Mackey can tell, demand for sweet and salty snacks has increased significantly. Now, the combination of sweet, salty, and hot can be found all over the grocery store.
“Ethel M has seen plenty of success with our Sea Salted Caramels since we launched them in 2011,” he says. “And now we’re experimenting with some of those spicier ingredients. Hopefully you’ll see some come to market in 2017!”