North Amer­ican and Western Euro­pean cuisines tend to use ingre­di­ents that share flavor com­pounds, while East Asian and Southern Euro­pean cuisines tend to avoid ingre­di­ents that share flavor com­pounds, according to a study by North­eastern Uni­ver­sity net­work scientists.

The find­ings — which were reported in the December edi­tion of the online journal Sci­en­tific Reports — appear to debunk the food-​​pairing hypoth­esis, which is based on the prin­ciple that foods that share flavor com­pounds taste better together.

Some sci­en­tists in the mol­e­c­ular gas­tronomy com­mu­nity think foods with sim­ilar com­po­si­tions taste well together, but we found that it really depends on the region,” said coau­thor Albert-​​László Barabási, a Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics with joint appoint­ments in biology and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Science.

Barabási — who recently received an hon­orary doc­torate from the Tech­nical Uni­ver­sity of Madrid for his con­tri­bu­tions to the fields of sci­ence and engi­neering — is the founding director of Northeastern’s world-​​renowned Center for Com­plex Net­work Research (CCNR).

The team of researchers, including former CCNR post­doc­toral research asso­ciates James Bagrow, Sebas­tian Ahnert and Yong-​​Yeol Ahn, took a network-​​based approach to explore the impact of flavor com­pounds on ingre­dient com­bi­na­tions. They designed and ana­lyzed the bipar­tite net­work of links between ingre­di­ents and flavor com­pounds found in more than 56,000 recipes from three online repos­i­to­ries, including epi​cu​rious​.com, all​recipes​.com and menupan​.com.

Two ingre­di­ents were con­nected if they shared at least one flavor com­pound. On average, a pair of ingre­di­ents in North Amer­ican cui­sine shared 11.7 flavor com­pounds. By con­trast, a pair of ingre­di­ents in East Asian cui­sine shared an average of 6.2 flavor compounds.

Com­pared to a ran­dom­ized recipe dataset, North Amer­ican dishes tended to use ingre­di­ents with more shared com­pounds than expected by chance, while East Asia dishes tended to use ingre­di­ents with fewer than shared com­pounds than expected.

The researchers found that a small number of ingre­di­ents con­tributed to the food paring effect in each region. Some 13 ingre­di­ents in North Amer­ican cui­sine, including milk, eggs and butter, appeared in roughly 74 per­cent of all recipes.

These ingre­di­ents played a dis­pro­por­tionate role in the cui­sine and con­tributed to the shared com­pound effect,” Barabási explained.

What’s his favorite food? “I like Hun­garian ethnic food, but I won’t reject a good steak or a good burger,” Barabási quipped.

View selected pub­li­ca­tions of Albert-​​László Barabási in IRis, Northeastern’s dig­ital archive.