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What Is the Difference between Sweet and Savory?

Amy Pollick
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Humans like different flavors in their foods. Therefore, we have both sweet and savory foods. What is the difference between sweet and savory? The most basic definition is that sweet food has the flavor or taste of sugar or honey, while savory food is not sweet, but rather full-flavored and sometimes spicy.

Sweet and savory foods often complement each other at a dinner. A salad may have savory cheese and bacon bits, but may also include sweet fruit such as apples or strawberries. Sweet and savory foods can often be combined to produce complex flavors, as well.

Many people think of sweet and savory foods as two separate categories, and sometimes they are. Savory food is often categorized as anything not inherently sweet. Meat, for instance, is usually savory. Vegetables, in general, are also savory. Snack foods, finger foods and hors d’oeuvres are most often savory, too. Foods prepared with a minimum of sugar and with no focus on a sugary taste are considered savory. Also, a fragrant herb called savory can be used to flavor meats and meat sauces.

Sweet, the other half of the sweet and savory duo, is produced by sugar. This may come from the natural sugar in fruit, or it may take the form of chocolate or other candy flavors. Most people have an affinity for all things sweet, and all have their personal preferences. Some prefer fruit-flavored sweets, some chocolate, some vanilla, some caramel, and some will not be happy with anything other than a peanut butter flavor. As with savory foods, sweet tastes may be paired together. For instance, chocolate and orange or raspberry are often used together, or chocolate and peanut butter or butterscotch.

Nuts are the bridge between sweet and savory. They can be coated in sugar or toasted in butter and used in sweet foods like cookies or brownies. They can also be roasted with salt and garlic and eaten out of hand, lightly toasted to top a savory dip or thrown into an Asian stir-fry.

Sweet and savory flavors often go together in the same dish. Pork roast may have a glazed apple topping. Asian dishes often have sweet sauces, but are also flavored with garlic and onions. Glazed carrots blend sweet and savory flavors, as does sweet corn cooked with salt and pepper. Sweet pineapple is a popular topping, along with ham, for pizza with a Hawaiian flair.

It is sometimes difficult to make a distinction between sweet and savory. Both work together and separately and allow cooks to give food maximum flavor and appeal.

What Is Savory Food?

Taste buds are regarded as being able to perceive sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami flavors. Savory foods mostly capture the salty and umami flavors. Umami, the Japanese term for "essence of deliciousness," is a flavor found in meats, fish, mushrooms, cheese, soy sauce, and many other foods. The primary fundamental role of this flavor is to help humans ensure that they consume enough proteins for the growth and maintenance of organs. Although most modern humans with access to proper nutrition do not need to worry about this, this benefit was greatly helpful in helping our ancestors thrive.

Savory foods get their taste from the presence of an amino acid called glutamic acid. This acid naturally occurs in many of the foods that are regarded as savory. However, monosodium glutamate is a cost-effective additive sometimes incorporated into foods to give them a more umami flavor.

What Are Examples of Savory Foods?

Savory foods come in all shapes and sizes, with some containing meat and others being plant-based, making them suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

Cured or Dried Meat

Cured or dried meat snacks, such as beef jerky and pepperoni, provide a tremendous salty and umami flavor. Dried meats are an excellent option to take when traveling or enjoying outdoor activities like hiking. Cold cuts are another good option for snaking, although they require staying cold, unlike dried meats such as jerky.

Chips

Chips are a crispy snack made from corn, potatoes, or vegetables and are used to dip in other savory foods like hot salsa or queso. Spinach artichoke dip, which is made with sour cream, mayonnaise, cream cheese, artichokes, and spinach, is a wonderful side for someone who is looking to enjoy something creamy and savory with their chips.

Nuts and Seeds

These filling snacks can come roasted or unroasted and usually contain salt or flavors such as barbeque or habanero pepper. Common types of nuts include almonds, macadamias, cashews, pecans, pistachios, and Brazil nuts. Nuts are very healthy when eaten in small quantities but are quite high in fat, so enjoy in moderation.

Cheeses

Cheese ranges in flavor from sharp cheddar to more mild cottage cheese. Some varieties of cheese that might please a palette looking for savory foods include:

  • Blue cheese, which is produced from the cultures of a mold, giving it its distinctive blue and veiny appearance
  • Cotija, which is popular on Mexican inspired dishes like guacamole, rice and beans, and tacos
  • Feta, which is typically produced from the milk of sheep or goats and ranges in texture from crumbly to mildly creamy
  • Mozzarella, a mild cheese that is popular in Italian dishes or as a main ingredient in Caprese salad
  • Cheddar, which has a nutty and tangy flavor and is one of the most popular cheeses for sandwiches and burgers

Usually, a cheese that has been allowed to mature will have a richer and more complex flavor. The wide variety of flavors and textures that exist in cheese make this an especially popular savory food choice around the world.

Potatoes

French fries and other potato dishes are popular savory foods, especially when salt, cheese, or bacon bits are added to the dish. Potatoes that are chopped and roasted with garlic and rosemary are another great savory food that is inexpensive and easy to prepare.

Savory foods provide a wide range of nutrients as well as essential fats and protein. Nearly everyone can find some delicious savory foods that they might enjoy.

What Is Sweet Food?

Sweet foods are often described in contrast to savory foods. This is because sweets are regarded as hitting the opposite end of the taste spectrum as salty and umami flavors, the ones associated with being savory. Sweet foods provide the body with quick sources of energy, which was important when people needed to hunt and gather their food. However, many foods today contain unhealthy amounts of sugar, so sweet foods are best consumed in moderation. Some sweet foods include:

  • Cakes, such as pound cake, angel food cake, butter cake, and red velvet cake
  • Ice cream, which comes in a wide variety of flavors and is popular during the summer months
  • Mascarpone cheese, which has a sweeter flavor than most typical savory cheeses and is used in cheesecakes, muffins, or cupcakes
  • Chocolate, a food made from cocoa beans used in many dishes, including cookies, brownies, and various types of candy

Eating small amounts of sweet foods on occasion will allow you to have a greater appreciation for the savory foods at the other end of the flavor continuum.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Amy Pollick
By Amy Pollick , Former Writer
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at DelightedCooking. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.

Discussion Comments

By anon989277 — On Feb 27, 2015

Shrimp prepared with a diced mango and pineapple.

By anon930008 — On Feb 03, 2014

Is mango mousse accompanied by espresso a savory sweet treat?

By anon322762 — On Mar 01, 2013

I want to know is it good or bad to eat sweet items in between lunch or dinner.

By LisaLou — On Oct 20, 2012

The best combination I can think of for a sweet and savory dish is pork chops baked with apples on them. At first you wouldn't think this would taste all that great, but it is a wonderful combination.

There is a favorite restaurant we like to eat at and I will often order one of their specials which is pork served with a cranberry sauce and cream cheese. The very first time I tasted this I was hooked and find myself craving this combination every so often.

As far as sweet things go chocolate and peanut butter have to be one of the most popular combinations. I don't care for either of these foods that much on their own, but when they are mixed together there is something about the taste that makes it hard to resist.

By myharley — On Oct 19, 2012

When I started trying to make some healthy changes in my diet I stopped eating potato chips and replaced that snack with almonds. I know that eating raw almonds is the healthiest for you, but they have so many great seasonings that enhance the taste so that is what I usually go for.

I love to eat almonds that have sea salt on them and I found one recipe where you toast the almonds and add vanilla and ginger. You can go either way with almonds, making them sweet or savory depending on what you mix them with. This is just one of the reasons they are such a versatile snack.

By SarahSon — On Oct 19, 2012

I love chocolate just about any way it is made, but one of my favorite combinations of sweet foods eaten together is chocolate and fresh fruit. If I am at an event where they have a chocolate fountain with fresh fruit, I could make a meal out of it. Strawberries with chocolate on them are probably my favorite, but chocolate and raspberry, banana and pineapple are pretty good too.

By honeybees — On Oct 18, 2012
I like both sweet and savory foods and it usually depends on what I am in the mood for. After any meal I usually want a little something sweet. It doesn't have to be a huge bowl of ice cream, but just a small taste of something sweet will satisfy me.

Eating something sweet like that doesn't always sound very good before a meal. I think eating sweets like that really does spoil your appetite. If I eat a handful of cookies before dinner, I notice that I am not nearly as hungry as I would have been otherwise.

By Ana1234 — On Oct 18, 2012

@browncoat - I'm not a huge sweet fan myself. But it is nice to have something like a sweet hot drink or something cold as a way to kind of clean the palate after eating.

I've always liked the Chinese way of thinking about food, which is to divide it into different flavors including sweet and savory and others. A meal isn't considered complete unless it has a mixture and balance of all the different flavors.

Which is probably why we get dishes like sweet and sour pork from China. Although I'm sure the sweet and sour pork you get from the local fast food Chinese place isn't anything like the traditional dishes eaten in the actual country.

By browncoat — On Oct 18, 2012

@anon103372 - Actually, that's a cultural thing. There are other cultures where the first course is the sweet course and later courses are savory.

However, I also think it's to do with rewards. Most people prefer the sweet foods and once they were much more expensive than the savory ingredients because sugar was once very rare and difficult to make. So, you get a small portion of sweets after the meal because there wasn't much to go around and because it was a reward for eating the meal (this might be more for kids than adults).

By anon103372 — On Aug 12, 2010

Why do we usually prefer to eat savory food first and follow with sweet flavors?

By oasis11 — On Aug 04, 2010

Sunshine31- I usually don’t like Cannoli pastries too much because I prefer sweeter pastries.

I do love Sweet and Sour Chicken and Honey Chicken. Both sauces provide a sweet taste to the savory chicken which is wonderful. I don't eat it often because both dishes are very high in calories.

By sunshine31 — On Aug 04, 2010

Greenweaver- I love trail mix. It tastes so good. I also love a savory pastry like a cannoli with the rich ricotta cheese filling. It is just the right snack to have with some espresso coffee.

By GreenWeaver — On Aug 04, 2010

And savory foods come in many forms. For example, many Thai dishes are both sweet and savory. Pad Thai for example, offers a savory taste of noodles with the sweet taste of peanut sauce. This combination makes the dish sweet and savory.

Sometimes the snacks can be made to be sweet and savory as well. I love the taste of grapes with cheese. The grapes offer a sweet taste while, the nuts are more savory.

Also many trail mix combination are sweet and savory. They usually contain raisin and chocolate chips which prvide the sweet taste while the various nuts provide the savory taste.

Amy Pollick

Amy Pollick

Former Writer

Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at DelightedCooking...
Learn more
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