Science Says Pineapple and Savoury Food Works

And you can't argue with science.
May 9, 2018, 1:53am
Illustration by Ashley Goodall

This article is supported by Nando’s new Tropical Classic burger, wrap, and pita. In this article, we make a case for pineapple in savoury food.

The marriage of pineapple and savoury food is a civil union that divides the nation. Some are adamantly against this coupling, while others are all for flashes of gold in unexpected dinner-time dishes. But whatever your stance, there’s a merit to mixing sweet and savoury in such a manner.

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The divisive combination first entered public consciousness back in 1962 when a Greek guy named Sam Panopoulos, who owned a restaurant in Canada, grabbed a tin of Dole's pineapple chunks and threw them onto a pizza base, along with ham and mozzarella. He called it the Hawaiian pizza—not because pineapples are native to the Hawaiian Islands, because they're not, but because pineapples became a symbol associated with Hawaiian tourism (and therefore luxury) around 1959 and the world was ready for a taste.

But Aussies were processing and canning pineapple just over a decade before that, courtesy of Golden Circle. The Queensland government even sent 500 cases of the stuff to the Queen as a wedding gift. Very posh.

In 1962 Golden Circle published their Tropical Recipe Book and Australia went ham for pineapple. Sales of the fruit skyrocketed as home-cooks plated up some very elaborate edible pineapple art that was both sweet and savoury. The golden rings weasled their way into everything from curries to casseroles to corned beef. Pineapple was soon served with steaks, stuffed eggs, salads, salmon loaf, and skewers of meat.

As a nation, we’ve frothed the stuff for decades—and with good gastronomical reason. Whether we’re adding slices of pineapple to pizza or using its golden flesh in spaghetti (this is apparently a thing), what we’re doing is finding balances among our usual flavour profiles: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savoury.

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As food trend expert Barb Stuckey writes in Taste: Surprising Stories and Science About Why Food Tastes Good, "We like sweet because it signals calories, or energy, to us. And we like salt because we need it for normal bodily function. We have no sodium storage system, as we do with other minerals (i.e. we store calcium in our bones), so Mother Nature's solution is a built-in craving for it. The combination of these two positive biological responses is very pleasurable.”

“To use an analogy,” Stuckey continues. “It’s akin to hearing beautiful music while sniffing rose petals: two positive sensory stimuli.” Sold.

The reason people love these combos also has something to do with avoiding “sensory specific satiety”, which is a clever way of describing an activity that I love to participate in where I eat heaps of chocolate until I almost feel sick and then switch to potato chips until illness subsides, and then back to chocolate and so on.

For anyone who doesn’t have practical experience in this, Debra Ronca breaks it down nicely on How Stuff Works. “Because humans are omnivores, we’re wired to desire a variety of foods and tastes. Eventually we’ll tire of the same taste over and over again. If you constantly gorge yourself with sweets and only sweets, at some point you’ll lose your taste for them. The same goes for salty. However, with flavour layering, flavours meld together in your mouth without giving you a specific taste. By avoiding sensory specific satiety, salty/sweet tastes even better and keeps you coming back for more.”

Your tongue has five sections to the taste five flavour profiles, and it can taste all five at once. Each taste bud has anywhere between 50 and 100 taste cells, so you can really take a trip to flavour country when you throw in more than one type of flavour—to the point where you’re able to alter flavour profiles as if you’ve got a tiny chemistry set behind your teeth. For example, salt can make sugary things taste sweeter, which is why it’s always a good sign when a brownie or cookie has a few shiny shards on top.

There are a few key examples where pineapple really makes sense with savoury flavour profiles. The first is cheese and pineapple. Cheese and pineapple both contain the flavour component methyl hexanoate, and this gives us a trifecta of pleasure: fat, salt, and acid. The other notable combo is pineapple and meat. Last year a bunch of food scientists found that injecting pineapple concentrate and honey—two ingredients commonly used in Korean meat dishes—enhanced the tenderness and flavour of steak. This is because pineapple contains reducing sugars, which allow a flavour explosion called the Maillard reaction to take place. “The essential components of the Maillard reaction are protein and sugars that lead to flavonoids that make food delicious,” writes scientist Stephen Du. Plus pineapple contains a little guy called bromelain, an enzyme that both tenderises meat and aids digestion, helping you break down and absorb protein—so adding it to an otherwise guilty pleasure basically balances things out, right?

This article is supported by Nando’s new Tropical Classic burger, wrap, and pita. You can find out more about the menu here.