The Science Behind Food Combinations


In this article, I will discuss the science behind the age-old question: what do you want to eat? Deciding what to eat is one of the most difficult, yet very important decisions humans make every day. There are many reasons why humans choose their own food diets. From combining like volatile compounds to create palatable foods or from combining foods to meet the daily caloric intake, several food pairing hypotheses have tried to explain the importance of taste in omnivores. Recent research has organized these hypotheses according to their taste and functional use, and I will be focusing on the taste. 

What is Taste?

A determining factor in deciding what to eat depends on the flavor. Flavor perception depends on both taste and smell. Gustation, or tasting, is a chemical sensation where chemoreceptors on the tongue allow tastants, or chemical molecules, to bind and allow a release neurotransmitters to signal the brainstem. There are five tastes perceived by taste receptors: umami, salty, bitter, sour, and sweet. As omnivores, humans have evolved to detect tastes for survival. Umami is important for detecting proteins and amino acids in our diets. Salt is important for detecting essential ions to regulate body homeostasis. Sugar is important for detecting a source of energy. Sour and bitter are used to detect poisons and spoiled food as a survival instinct. 

To begin with, a contributing factor to why food combinations work is due to their well-matched flavors and compounds. There are two main hypotheses that fall under this category: the flavor network hypothesis and the food-pairing hypothesis.

Food-Pairing Hypothesis

FoodPairing chart of the combination of apples and coffee on the basis of similar flavor compounds

The food-pairing hypothesis is an idea that food flavor pairings with similar volatile or flavor compounds work better together. This hypothesis supports many culinary practices by developing new recipes. Food ingredient pairing combinations are supported by their shared chemical flavor compounds. A proponent of this hypothesis is The Foodpairing Co, who is dedicated to using scientific and computer algorithms to predict and create food pairing on the basis of aromatic or volatile compounds. Many chefs, such as Michelin-starred Heston Blumenthal and Sang-Hoon Degeimbre, have used the food-pairing hypothesis in their dishes to pair white chocolate with caviar and strawberries with peas, respectively. 

Possible food combos w/ food pairing: 

  • White chocolate and caviar: trimethylamine 
  • Watermelon and gruyere: 
  • Watermelon and dark chocolate
  • Apple and cheese/gruyere 

The Flavor Network Hypothesis

The Backbone of the Flavor Network. The network of ingredients is organized into statistically significant links between flavors and their similarities to other ingredients.

The flavor network hypothesis, also known as the flavor bridging hypothesis,  focuses on the idea that the pairing of two ingredients without any common aromatic flavors, combined, give rise to a unique chain of flavors. For example, apricot and whiskey as ingredients do not share any volatile compounds, but if they were “bridged” with tomato, the combination works really well together. Food bridging is also viewed as how ingredients have several components, like different flavors and textures. Many different ingredients, like tomatoes, have secondary flavors that can be bridged with other ingredients, or like how soft or crunchy tomatoes can be bridged with other ingredients. Researchers compared Western and Eastern recipes to better understand flavors and taste. Researchers found that Eastern cuisine tends to avoid food-pairing and food-bridging by combining contrasting ingredients together. On the other hand, Western cuisine, especially in Europea countries, support the idea of food-pairing and food-bridging with combining or bridging similar ingredients. 

Possible food-bridging ideas:

  • Strawberries and garlic, bridged with beef or onions and beer.
  • Apricot and whiskey, bridged with tomato
  • Crab and grapefruit: bridged with peas and lemon


De Klepper, M. (2011). Food pairing theory: A European fad. Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies, 11(4), 55-58.

Simas, T., Ficek, M., Diaz-Guilera, A., Obrador, P., & Rodriguez, P. R. (2017). Food-bridging: a new network construction to unveil the principles of cooking. Frontiers in ICT4, 14.

Spence, C., Wang, Q. J., & Youssef, J. (2017). Pairing flavours and the temporal order of tasting. Flavour, 6(1), 4.

Malina is a second-year neuroscience and industrial engineering student at Georgia Institute of Technology. Her passions include baking, sleeping, and drinking copious amounts of coffee.