Food chemistry or food culture

Pivot Points is a monthly column by EuroScientist writer David Bradley.

As the last remnants of holiday dinners, lunches, high-teas, suppers and celebratory breakfasts are collated and one last binge with myriad mixed flavors indulged, thoughts turn to taste. Specifically flavor and the combinations thereof. We all know that celebrity chefs are gluttons for an odd mix: sweet and sour is nothing to the TV cook who garnishes peppered okra with crème Anglaise washed down with a curried champagne spritzer with a hint of flint. And there are those who wouldn’t think of leaving the supermarket without a good selection of cheese and wine.

One might imagine that flavor chemistry would somehow dictate which tastes and smells work together. After all, as with music, there presumably are olfactory notes that are dissonant to our senses. However, a quick survey of world cuisine or a brisk stroll past endless international deli outlets in any town will reveal that taste in food, as in many aspects of life, is much more of a cultural issue than we might at first imagine.

After all, one person’s bread and butter is another’s sweet and sour and while meat and two vegetables are fine for some, others prefer the “zombie” dancing squid of “Ika Odori Don“. As with the odd rhythms and harmonies of another’s world music, so too with the tastes and smells of cuisine. What might sound like an exotic or melancholic minor scale to a Western ear will be jollity itself in Asia, while, there are some of us who take our porridge with salt but wouldn’t dream of having red hot chili peppers at the breakfast table.

Food chemistry or food culture?

An intriguing piece of research preprinted on the physics arXiv service and destined for Scientific Reports, a journal of the Nature Publishing Group, provides quantitative evidence that the pick-and-mix approach to the culinary arts is very much a derivative of culture and imagination rather than inherent to the chemistry of specific flavors.

The idea that certain flavors might work together because they share common components was given celebrity credence by British chef Heston Blumenthal who, experimenting with combinations of salty and sweet foods, found that, quite surprisingly, chocolate and caviar taste rather good together. Being of a scientific bent and have not some little influence and money he had these ingredients analyzed and lo and behold, it turns out that they do indeed share chemical constituents, including the compound trimethylamine. Personally, I’ve always had a penchant for blue cheese and fruit cake and apparently those two share chemistry too, as do cheese and bacon, asparagus and butter, chilies and chocolate and many others.

Recipe research – East vs. West

Apparently the menu categories are not even that clear. Sebastian Ahnert of the University of Cambridge, UK and colleagues at Northeastern University and Harvard University in Boston and Indiana University, Bloomington, USA, have, according to the arXiv paper, analyzed the connections between ingredients and flavors in tens of thousands of recipes from the three big online recipe sites:, and the Korean site

At first, they seemed to have proven Blumenthal correct, at least as far as Western cuisine was concerned: In North America and Western Europe cooks tend to write recipes with ingredients that share flavors. However, they found that the East Asian recipes had the opposite characteristics, they did not favor paired flavors, in fact, there was an “antipairing” taking place, where cooks strove to avoid mixing ingredients that had shared taste characteristics.

On taking a closer look at the ingredients network of 381 food ingredients and the 1021 flavor compounds known to contribute to the flavour of each ingredient, however, the team revealed that where food pairing and antipairing occurs it is with only a very limited number of ingredients. In North America, milk, butter, cocoa, vanilla, cream, and egg are used together a lot and certainly share components, whereas in East Asia beef, ginger, pork, cayenne, chicken, and onion are often paired. When the researchers removed these specific ingredients from their analysis, the pairing versus antipairing of West versus East disappears.

“The way we think of these results is that they show that the shared compound effect is real in North American and other Western cuisines, but that it is not the only reason why foods can go together (as shown by the East Asian result),” Ahnert told us. “In other words, the shared compound effect is real, but is not the only effect that matters.” The researchers point out that there are perhaps one million billion combinations of ingredients we might cook up, but across the whole of human culinary culture, there are perhaps just one million that we use (as evidenced by However you look at it, it’s all about taste and to be frank, I’ve no real beef with that, unless it’s dipped in a cheese and chocolate fondue.

Backbone of the flavor network

Each node denotes an ingredient, the node color indicates food category, and node size reflects the ingredient prevalence in recipes from “Flavor pairing and the principles of food pairing”

Further reading

Flavor network and the principles of food pairing” Sci, Rep, 2011, online

Yong-Yeol Ahn, Sebastian E. Ahnert, James P. Bagrow, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi

David Bradley
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