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In a mildly synesthetic sense, I have been describing two categories of sweet flavors as "bright/clear" and "dark" all my life. These categories aren't exhaustive, but I think it will be easy to correlate what I mean if I list the two:

Dark

  • Coffee
  • Chocolate
  • Pancake syrup
  • Nut-based sweets like peanut brittle
  • Marzipan
  • Caramel
  • Honey
  • Pure sugar itself
  • Most ice creams

Clear

  • Cherry
  • Watermelon
  • Apple
  • Lemon
  • Grapefruit
  • Grapes
  • Almost all sorbets

Unsure

  • Banana
  • Fruitcake

Are these categories that exist and are useful in cooking?

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  • Coffee, lemon and grapefruit are sweet to you? – Johannes_B Apr 29 '20 at 3:40
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    Are you talking about black coffee or a caffeinated sugar bomb ala Starbucks? ... My initial thought would be the type of sugar though. The bright category is predominantly fructose, while dark is predominantly... Not fructose. But honey is fructose, so there went that. The other things I'd consider would be acidity and sugar concentration. But the coffee throws me off. – kitukwfyer Apr 29 '20 at 4:00
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    Many of your "dark" sweet items have a hint of caramel, either added or as a result of their processing. I suspect malted sweet foods would also fall into this group. Fruitcake may be variable - a light fruitcake with only white sugar: light, a dark fruitcake with lots of brown sugar (Christmas cake in some countries), or a teabread: dark. Am I guessing correctly? – Chris H Apr 29 '20 at 9:54
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No, there is no standard categorization on these lines. You are just creating a personal categorization in your head (which is not a bad thing in any way - that's how everybody's mind works) and you are attaching an association to brightness/darkness which is mostly personal, but might be close enough to a shared experience/language use that other people could understand it if you gave them sufficient examples.

The prototypic quality of your "dark" category seems to involve the presence of caremel-like notes and maybe some phenol-based tastes. (To check if phenols are defining, ask yourself: is liquorice a good example of the category, maybe a better one than pure sugar?) The presence of fat also seems to play a role.

The prototypic quality of your "clear" category seems to require the combination of sugar and acid, and also having water present, as opposed to fat.

I said above that these are not usual categories, but they are to some extent recognizable when explained. More common descriptions are for phenolic compounds to be associated with "earthiness", to some point maybe also caramel may have that association. Fats tend to be associated with density and heaviness. The coloring of many caramelized or phenol-containing foods is also dark. So I think that this makes your category name somewhat intuitive.

As for the "clear" category, on some occasions acid is indeed called "bright". And water is indeed clear visually - which might strike you as irrelevant, but actually our brains overlook this kind of separation when building associations.

So I would think that your categories are intuitive enough in the sense that, if you were to give people examples from above and then pressed them into assigning a bunch of new items to these categories, there will be a noticeable correlation in the assignments. But if you also ask the people if they use these categories or know of them, I would expect that almost nobody does.

The closest widespread classification which is somewhat similar is the division of "top", "middle" and "bottom" notes in perfumery. But besides not having made it into cooking, that categorization only has some overlap with yours - they are related, but not too closely.

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  • This answer is based a lot on my own reaction to your examples and the associations I make with your categories - feel free to explain more if my guesses about the prototypes of your categories are wrong. Which, incidentally, would be a good sign that your categorization is even more subjective that the answer assumes. – rumtscho Apr 29 '20 at 10:35
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If you really want to obsess over this, I'd recommend reading George Lakoff's "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind".

It touches upon topics like how not all cultures handle colors the same way. Some only deal in light/dark, and don't really deal with what European cultures think of as "color".

Personally, I don't see these as sub-categories of sweetness. I see them as a different facet of taste. Non-sweet foods can be what I think of as 'dark' and 'clear' just as easily as sweet foods can be. I think that it's more typical to call those categories 'rich' and 'bright', though ... but I'm not sure if they're exactly the same categories that you've come up with, or just that they're correlated to those categories.

It's possible that your 'dark' category is things with bitter notes in them (chocolate and coffee definitely qualify) or other flavors associated with more complex chemicals from cooked sugars (like in caramels, which can be developed when reducing syrups), and the 'bright' category is those with more simple sugars and possibly a sour note (citrus and other fruits to a lesser extent).

Of course, my definitions for the categories makes grapefruit more difficult to classify, as it can be both bitter and sour, but we also get into issues of classical vs. prototypical categories, where classical categories require some objective criteria for inclusion, while prototypical categories are more about how subjectively similar things are to other items in the cluster.

And it's important to note that categories don't exactly "exist" -- they're a construct that help us to make sense of things, and so of course they help individuals reduce mental processing necessary to deal with many different things. So we have categories like "root vegetables" and "tubers" which have differences, but is everyone sure what you mean when you talk about them? An onion clearly isn't a tuber ... but is it a root vegetable?

(See https://cooking.stackexchange.com/a/3027/67 ; as people have commented about how it doesn't align with the categories uses in other countries for fruit based condiments. Also note that there are categories that aren't shared across all English dialects -- summer squash, neeps, floury potatoes, pulses, etc.)

Categories also help change how we look at things (also called "framing") -- once something has a name, we can talk about it. So how we used to talk about mushrooms being "meaty", but now we talk about "umami" which includes other foods high in glutamates like soy sauce and hard cheeses which might have been called "savory" but not "meaty".

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