You probably know this already, but peanuts and chocolate pair really well together. Check that—extremely well together. That isn’t just hyperbole, or the opinion of a select few. It’s the consensus of the vast majority of candy lovers across the U.S.
Perhaps you cast a vote in the most recent TODAY show “Bracketween” challenge. Or maybe you’ve seen one of the other candy rankings, like this one from FiveThirtyEight, or this one from LA Times. Regardless of the poll, they all have something in common: confections with peanuts rank number one in all the polls, and even take multiple positions among the top ten. It’s not a coincidence. There’s an explanation for why peanuts are a popular ingredient in candy.
It’s all about the contrast
“Of the top ten most popular candy bars in the USA, 5 contain peanuts,” said Lisa Dean, Food Research Technologist with USDA, ARS, SEA. “With peanuts and chocolate, I think it is the balance of sweet and savory as well as texture. Do you prefer candy that is totally soft-caramel, for example, or with some crunch or resistance to the bite—nuts, pretzels, crisp rice?”
In fact, that multi-sensory experience when eating peanuts and chocolate is one that activates the pleasure center in your brain. We don’t just enjoy eating it, we crave the flavors and textures that collide on our tastebuds and palate.
“People love the combination of peanuts and chocolate because of something called dynamic sensory contrast or natural affinities,” said food manufacturing consultant, Ed Engoron, Ph.D., President and CEO of Perspectives/The Consulting Group, Inc. “Our taste buds love when contrasting flavors come together. The sweet, smoothness of the chocolate and the salty crunch from the peanuts makes for contrasting flavors that have, what we call, come-back flavor. Peanuts and chocolate are one of those combinations that as you fill up, your stomach sends out signals to stop eating; while your brain says, ‘keep on going, buster.’”
And chocolate isn’t the only ingredient that peanuts marry well with. Other confections promote that dynamic sensory contrast with peanuts as well.
“Caramel is another ingredient that pairs well with peanuts,” said Engoron. “It has the same type of sweet, smoothness as chocolate, but the salty peanut flavors help cut the edge of the sweetness.”
The future of peanut candy is packed with flavor and benefits
Both Engoron and Dean also see room for innovation beyond just peanut and chocolate. Though the classic combo has proved popular for decades, they say there’s opportunity to add additional elements that could provide both function, and extra flavor.
“One of more recent ones is cookies with peanuts and bacon,” said Dean. “Our group also worked on a peanut butter and sweet potato flour mix that would really make a great candy filling with a vitamin boost."
“We predict that spice flavors from other cultures will become more relevant than current iterations,” said Engoron. “Curries, chili peppers, cardamom, along with more use of Asian flavors will start to gain ground with peanut fanciers.”
Still, for now we can always rely on classic combinations like peanuts and chocolate or peanuts and caramel to satisfy our sweet tooth. Regardless of whether you prefer a simple Reese’s cup, or a satisfying Snickers, chances are that a candy with peanut is probably going to rank high on your list. That’s true even of the food scientists.
“Butterfinger is my choice,” said Dean.
“I’m a PAYDAY guy through-and-through,” said Engoron.
And there you have it. Peanut candies reign supreme because most of us LOVE the taste, texture and satisfying pleasure we get when eating the sweet and savory combination of peanuts in candy.