Dynamic contrast is the hallmark of every careful culinary endeavor.

In “Why Humans Love Junk Food,” Steven Witherly digs into the Witherly and Hyde Theory of Dynamic Contrast. He states that people prefer foods with sensory contrasts, including “light and dark, sweet and salty.” It’s a sensation he calls “ping-pong pleasure,” and it directly relates to snacks.

The rise of the sweet-savory flavor combination is a perfect example of Witherly’s discussion of dynamic contrast, with sweet and salty forming a cornerstone in its foundation. But sweet and spicy also dances within this spectrum, as does sweet and herbal.

When formulators expertly apply these flavor profiles to snack foods, the net effect often proves undeniably craveable.

Sweet and salty

The sweet-salty flavor profile is a modern classic, highly visible in the über-popular salted caramel. Caramel corn is a classic here, and ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn and caramel corn are up 21.76 in dollar sales for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 25, 2015, per IRI, Chicago.

“For several years now, the leading ‘sweet and salty’ taste sensation combination has been salted caramel,” says Anton Angelich, group vice president, marketing, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, NY. “In trying to better understand this sensory phenomenon, one must look at the interaction of the two different taste stimulators: salt and sweet. Sweet perception sends pleasurable messages to the brain. Salt acts as a flavor enhancer. When the two are combined, and properly balanced, such as with salted caramel, the pleasurable taste experience is magnified.” He notes that the salted caramel taste combination is popular in cookies and biscuits, among other applications.

“Salted caramel and salted dark chocolate are still very popular for trail mixes and nuts, as well as on popcorn,” says Kimberly Cornelius, food technologist, Wixon, St. Francis, WI. She notes that while the bacon trend might be on its way out, the combination of maple and bacon still has traction in products like popcorn. “A new up-and-comer is salted satsuma, a seedless mandarin orange,” she says, a flavor combination that fits with nuts and trail mixes.

Pinkleton’s, Portland, OR, offers RTE popcorn in Salted Molasses and Salted Vanilla. “I look for flavor profiles that speak to me,” says Jonathan J. Poe, owner of the company. “With Salted Vanilla, I wanted to do a milder caramel, not cook it quite as long, so the nuances in the vanilla that I use could really sing.”

Poe suggests including fat in the sweet-salty profile. “Sweet and salty balance one another when done right, if you add an element of fat, like organic butter,” he says. “This amazing thing starts happening, your mouth starts saying, ‘More!’”

Chocolate-covered chips have begun to find a wider audience. Frito-Lay introduced its Lay’s Wavy chocolate-dipped chips in late 2013 to join the ranks of Utz Quality Food Foods and Herr Foods, and subsequently added a dark-chocolate version. While the overall potato chip category is only up 4.81 percent in dollar sales for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 25, 2015, Lay’s Wavy are up 8.35 percent, now accounting for $568.7 million in sales, per IRI.

Gluten-free bakery Defloured, Chicago, goes sweet-salty with two of its baked goods: Three Faces of Eve Salted Peanut Chocolate Bars and Let It Rain! Bomber Bars (made with peanuts, peanut butter cups, toffee and potato chips atop a gluten-free graham cracker base).

And B.T. McElrath Chocolatier, Minneapolis, offers Buttered Toast chocolate bars, made with toast purchased from a local artisan bakery—a notable trend in its own right—amply buttered, then enrobed in milk chocolate.

Sweet-salty tastes can gain increased depth through use of naturally sweet-salty foods, like blue cheese. POP Gourmet Foods, the 2015 Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery Snack Producer of the Year, takes this route with its co-branded Rogue Blue Cheese Popcorn, made with cheese from Rogue Creamery, Springfield, OR.

The Hain Celestial Group’s Terra Chips brand steps into Thanksgiving territory with its Crinkles Candied Sweet Potato Chips. It then heads south of the border with its Spiced Sweets Cumin & Red Pepper. Its Sweets & Carrots snack includes crunchy dried carrots, delivering a full serving of vegetables in every ounce.

POP Gourmet also invades the garden, including real crispy jalapeño chips in its Fire Corn Jalapeño Popcorn and White Cheddar Jalapeño Popcorn.

Sweet and spicy

“Sweet brown flavors such as caramel, butterscotch and toffee have been popular for a very long time,” says Angelich. “The popularity of these flavors plays well into the consumer’s desire for retro-comforting tastes. We are seeing, however, that these flavors are being enhanced by the addition of ginger and cinnamon.”

The combination of chocolate and chiles also plays well in a variety of foods. “In the 1500s in Mexico, hot pepper was added to cocoa beverages to give a complex taste sensation of bitter, sweet and hot,” says Angelich.

Another Pinkleton’s popcorn is Spicy Mexican Cocoa—Poe’s personal favorite. “I hail from Southern California and have always loved the spicy-smoky-sweet behind a lot of Mexican cooking,” he says.

“The ever-popular fruit and chile pepper combination is still going strong for the snack industry, such as mango-chipotle or pineapple-habanero,” says Cornelius. “A few other ‘off-the-beaten-path’ profiles are starting to emerge—moles, harissa and pickled vegetables.” She suggests that these flavors work well on tortilla chips and other snack bases, and that chocolate and chiles still have a place in nuts and trail mixes.

Chiles form part of the primary base for sriracha, which has hit the market with force over the past year or so. “It has a great flavor base of garlic, chile pepper heat and vinegar, balanced with a touch of sweetness to keep you coming back for more,” says Cornelius. “It’s all about the right balance.”

Robert Danhi, chef and author, James Beard Award finalist for his book “Southeast Asian Flavors” and host of the “Taste of Vietnam” TV documentary, characterizes the sriracha flavor profile as “salty-sour-sweet and fermented with a rich, garlicky flavor.” He notes that it also gains depth from fermentation.

“I’m collaborating on a sriracha flake made from the sauce itself,” says Danhi, “with some rice maltodextrin to keep it dry and in flake form—amazing stuff.”

While many directly connect Huy Fong Foods and its ubiquitous “rooster sauce” with sriracha, the chili sauce is named after the coastal city of Si Racha in Thailand and common in countless iterations throughout Southeast Asia. The sauce was originally known as sriraja panich.

The complex sweet-spicy flavor profile has proved popular of late, with releases including:

  • POP Gourmet Huy Fong Sriracha Popcorn
  • POP Gourmet Huy Fong Sriracha Potato Chips
  • General Mills Chex Mix Xtreme Sweet & Spicy Sriracha
  • Popcorn Indiana Sriracha Popcorn
  • The Kellogg Co. Sriracha Pringles
  • Kettle Brand Sriracha Potato Chips
  • Kettle Brand Sriracha Popcorn
  • Way Better Sriracha Tortilla Chips
  • Snack Factory Sriracha & Lime Pretzel Crisps

Sweet and herbal

Sweet-herbal-savory territory offers a wide range of potential combinations—from bright and grassy to deep and earthy.

“Herbs add a touch of freshness and earthiness in the background that can create a whole new flavor experience, like vanilla with a sweet basil note or passion fruit and turmeric,” says Cornelius. She suggests that herbs can add “brightness and slight green notes” to sweet-herbal flavor profiles.

That ever-present dill pickle accompanying lunchtime sandwiches and chips made a leap into chips a while back and continues to surface. Pringles Xtra recently released a Screamin’ Dill Pickle flavor.

POP Gourmet sells co-branded Wakaya Perfection Ginger & Sweet Orange Popcorn, and Ginger, Sea Salt & Caramel Popcorn, made with Wakaya Perfection organic pink Fijian ginger powder. The company also offers Exotic Spiced Caramel with Cashews Popcorn that includes cardamom in the spice mix.

Pinkleton’s offers an Orange Cardamom Popcorn. Poe notes that it was inspired by a breakfast pastry he had in Denmark—and from the classic Old Fashioned cocktail.

Sweet-savory flavor combinations have grown beyond novelty status in today’s snack market, and we will continue to see new, innovative flavors build appealing dynamic contrast in products across the board moving forward. It’s simply a matter of crafting the right craveable balance.