This is a "soft" question that's been bothering me for a while.

When cooking savory dishes, we usually try to balance out the five basic flavors (sweet, salty, sour, umami, and bitter) so that none of them dominates. None of these flavors should overwhelm the dish, but when present in the right ratios we will perceive a dish as tasting good.

On the other hand, we also enjoy dishes that are mostly sweet. In Western cultures these are eaten as dessert, usually after the savory portion of a meal, though in some other cultures (e.g. in Japan) sweet foods are traditionally eaten separately from savory meals. We do like having hints of the other four flavors in sweet dishes (e.g. salt in chocolate chip cookies, bitterness in coffee-flavored ice cream, etc.) but sweetness is certainly the dominating flavor.

My question is: why don't we have salty, sour, bitter, or umami equivalents of "dessert"? In other words, why do we not, for example, have a separate dish at meals which is overwhelmingly sour, which only a hint of the other flavors? Why is sweetness unique in this regard?

  • 2
    Would you honestly say that you enjoy that nasty canned frosting they sell in the grocery store? Think about the desserts you like... are they truly so one note? There's no sour or umami or salt?
    – Catija
    Oct 11, 2015 at 20:08
  • Salted popcorn seems to me to be an exception to your rule. And bar snacks in general emphasise salt as a dominating flavour. Oct 12, 2015 at 8:40
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not about food preparation
    – rumtscho
    Oct 12, 2015 at 9:38
  • Hello Malper! Your question is interesting in itself, but it is not a cooking question. You can see on our on-topic page that we are not about any possible question on food, but specialize on techniques of food preparation. The question here can be answered by somebody with background in cognitive science, history and anthropology, and also some biology, but not by a cook.
    – rumtscho
    Oct 12, 2015 at 9:41

2 Answers 2


There's also probably a bit of biology involved: sugars are calorie-dense, and thus good sources of calories when you're struggling to survive on what you can forage. Bitter foods are often dangerous or poisonous in some ways; sour foods are often unripe, and thus harder to digest, and umami is a fairly neutral indicator. Salt can be dehydrating in large quantities. I have heard that this explains why little children need no coaxing to eat sweets but rarely like bitter or astringent foods.

  • This is actually what I was thinking. :)
    – Catija
    Oct 12, 2015 at 0:24
  • 1
    I don't get what this answer has to do with the question about desserts being sweet. According to this answer, sweet dishes as dessert are completely illogical and should be main courses. Oct 12, 2015 at 18:29
  • @JohnHammond - it has to do with why there's a greater tolerance for sweetness by itself. As a dense, quick energy source, instinct says go for it, tastes good - but it isn't a great food source (burns fast, doesn't last) so there are limits. it just takes a lot to get a "too much" signal since sweet was not usually found in amounts that needed limiting in the wild. Salt is also needed (we like it lots), but a lower amount that could be used and larger amounts around (seawater) means a firmer limit. Other flavors had less need and more limits, so often balance in moderation.
    – Megha
    Apr 22, 2017 at 11:25
  • Umami might not be that neutral - it is often found in fermented foods, some kinds of fermentation however mean spoilage! Sep 26, 2017 at 10:24
  • As humans, we evolved mechanisms so that when we eat enough protein and fat, we feel "sated". We have no such mechanism like that for carbs, or more specifically, sugars and sweets. That's because we never encountered sweets in nature—to the same extent—until recently in the last several hundred years. That is why deserts tend to be sweet. They can also have any of the other tastes, but the predominant one is sweetness, because that is the only thing we still "have room for".
    – NSGod
    Jul 6, 2019 at 21:47

This is what we are used to. Back in the 15th century, meals were not separated that strongly into sweet and savory. Over the centuries, with the industrial availability of sugar, the separation became stronger, especially in France, the pioneer of courses.

A French five course dinner is:

  • entrée
  • plat
  • salade
  • fromage
  • dessert

No course should repeat core flavors and tastes of another one. The dessert had to be sweet, as other courses were not allowed to be sweet.

As you have stated yourself, it's a cultural thing, which also changed over time and will continue to change. For example, salad was eaten after the main course up to the 20th century in the States. Around the first World War this started to change and it became more common to eat it before (maybe to make use of it as a filler).

Maybe in 300 years, sugar and corn syrup will be so prevalent that savory meat will be the dessert and all other courses sweet. Nestlé would love that.

Arranging the Meal: A History of Table Service in France

  • Serving food in courses is "a la russe" - in the Russian style
    – user23614
    Oct 12, 2015 at 8:49
  • 1
    @user23614 Serving food. But the dishes were separated in different courses before that, too, put in a special layout on the table at the same time. You can see a picture of a 17th century French table layout with different courses in the reference given. Oct 12, 2015 at 18:34

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