Why Your Brain Is So Fond of Food Mashups

Looking at you, Margarita Cupcakes.

Some days you just really want a BBQ egg roll. Or maybe a frosted sugar cookie donut, cheeseburger casserole, or buffalo chicken enchiladas. What can we say? We're a sucker for a dish that mashes up one food we love with another food we love to make a brand-new culinary experience. While pumpkin pie cake and nacho casserole sound delicious, turns out it's not just the tempting flavors that makes mashups so fun to eat. In fact, there is a deeper reason that your brain loves food mashups.

Website 22 Carrots spoke to the co-authors of Blindsight: The (Mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes Our Brains about why we love our mixed-up comfort foods, and there is both a psychological and neuroscientific reason behind it.

Margarita Cupcakes
Photographer: Jennifer Causey Food Stylist: Melissa Gray Prop Stylist: Heather Chadduck Hillegas

According to one of the co-authors, Hult International Business School's Neuromarketing Professor Prince Ghuman, "people's brains want familiarity and novelty at different times, but what they 'really love is a perfect combination of both'." So if you're eating mac and cheese pancakes, your brain is getting that perfect blend of the familiar (mac and cheese and pancakes) in a novel way.

That's not the only reason your brain loves mashups, though. According to the pros, our brains love not only comfort food combos, but combinations of "anticipation and expectation," which these mashups provide. According to neuroscientist and co-author Matt Johnson, our minds thrive on anticipation, so thinking about a combination you know and love, say, burgers and Coca-Cola, gives you pleasure before you even taste anything. When you throw in an unpredictable element like a New England Lobster Salad burger, your brain isn't quite sure what to expect as it has no context for such a food.

When a mashup exceeds your expectation, your brain releases that happy chemical, dopamine, giving you a boost. It's that combination of exceeding expectations and lack of context that can turn a mashup meal into a "pleasure amplifier." Who doesn't want that?

Before you go mixing your chicken salad with pecan pie, there is a limit to what the brain will tolerate. According to 22 Carrots, "the trick is to not overdo the new to a level of disgust, shock, or repulsion that cannot be balanced with the familiar." So maybe stick with mac and cheese pizza, but skip the mac and cheese cheesecake.

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