By Bridget Reed

Sour Foods: What Makes Things Sour

We’re all out there searching for the sourest candy and challenging each other to eat things that make our faces cartoonishly pucker, but have you ever stopped to think about what actually makes all of these things so sour? 

After opening the ancient pickle jar that released the Final Boss’ sour vibes all across the land, Hank the Honey Badger went to work trying to fix the mess he accidentally unleashed. But after chowing down on all the sour fruits he could find and defeating a handful of minibosses along the way, he wondered exactly where all that Sour Power came from.

Hopefully, by understanding sourness better, he’ll be that much more prepared to take on the Final Boss when the time comes. Here’s what he found on his research sidequest.

The Good, the Bad, and the Delicious

Hank started his research at the Eldergloom Forrest Library, but it turned out that most of the books on sourness disappeared when the Final Boss was banished. As long as his powers were trapped inside the ancient pickle jar, nobody needed to worry about it — until now. 

Hank could only find one book that included some basic information. Sour is one of the five basic flavors that people can taste alongside sweet, salty, bitter, and umami. 

Most of these flavors come from obvious ingredients. Sugar is sweet, mushrooms are packed with umami, arugula is bitter, and if you’ve ever been hit in the face with a giant wave at the beach, then you definitely know where salty comes from. 

Hank knew that he could walk into his local forest market and pick up ingredients that represented all those tastes, but where the heck does sour come from? He needed to start at the beginning, so he went to find someone who might know.

Why Does Sourness Exist?

Deep in the woods, well beyond the cave where he found the pickle jar, Hank followed a path that he had heard about from an old tale. Others had said the story was made up, but Hank had no choice but to believe. And just as he hoped, the path led him to the ancient sage who trapped the Final Boss in the pickle jar all those years ago.

The sage wasn’t too pleased with Hank for releasing the Final Boss, but in hopes of helping to defeat him once again, he shared everything he knew about where sourness came from:

First, there were plants that evolved to taste sour as a way to prevent creatures from eating them. Surprisingly, some of these creatures actually enjoyed the sourness that was meant to deter them, an evolutionary oddity.

For those creatures, sometimes the flavor was safe and delicious, even helping to balance concentrations of acids and bases inside their bodies. But other times, it was a warning sign that they ignored at their own peril. 

Sourness can indicate that a food has spoiled, and a similar flavor of bitterness can sometimes indicate poison. The bravest ones who risked danger to enjoy sourness passed along their strength and their knowledge for discerning good from bad sour.

Some say the potency of despair that the Final Boss creates comes from a long line of those who ate the bad sourness and survived, but that might just be another old tale. Hank thanked the old sage for sharing so much information and promised he would do everything he could to redeem his mistake.

He understood the history and lore of sourness, but he was still looking for clues on using the information against the Final Boss. He needed to understand the science behind the sour, so he made his way back to Arachnothorn’s territory to follow a hunch.

Acids Pack the Punch

Hank remembered seeing a patch of mushrooms when he and Quinnie were battling Arachnothorn way back at the beginning of their journey together. Just as he suspected, by hopping from mushroom to mushroom in a specific pattern, he was transported to the knowledge center of a vast mycelium network that spanned far beyond the boundaries of Eldergloom Forrest.

“I see you discovered our secret code,” said a tiny mushroom down at Hank’s feet. “That means you can access any information stored in our network, but you can only ask us three questions. What would you like to know?”

He considered how he could possibly learn everything he needed to know with only three questions, so he started broadly. “What makes things sour?”

The tiny mushroom simply said, “Acid.”

Of course, that question was way too broad, so he asked the mushroom to elaborate, and this is what he learned.

  • There are also inorganic acids like hydrochloric, nitric, and sulfuric acid that cannot safely be consumed. 
  • Both types taste sour due to the concentration of protons and hydrogen ions in the acids, but organic acids taste sour because of an even higher concentration of protons, even if the inorganic acid has the same pH level.

Before Hank could wrap his little honey badger head around all that chemistry talk, the mushroom said, “You have one question remaining.” That’s when Hank realized he spent his second question on a follow-up question and knew he needed to make his final question count.

He asked, “Is there anything else you think I should know to defeat the Final Boss? Please be specific.”

Here is what the mushroom said.

  • You cannot defeat the Final Boss with strength alone. 
  • He is more powerful than any miniboss you will ever encounter and more acidic than you could ever safely become yourself. 
  • Rather than trying to overpower him, you must instead attempt to neutralize him.

And just like that, Hank was transported back to the forest floor and all the mushrooms disappeared into the ground.

Back to the Main Quest

Hank made his way back to Quinnie to fill her in on everything he learned. There is ancient evolutionary power in sourness, organic acids are more sour than inorganic, and finding a way to neutralize the Final Boss might help give them an advantage in the final battle.

If the Final Boss’ power comes from his potent acidity, then do they need to acquire a giant milk cannon? Or maybe they could try to sneak honey into his sour fruit supply. There are no bad ideas in a brainstorm, after all.

They might not be ready to defeat the Final Boss just yet, but each sidequest helps them level up and get that much closer to neutralizing him and all his cronies.


Human Biology of Taste | National Library of Medicine

Taste Preferences | ScienceDirect

The evolution of sour taste | National Library of Medicine

The chemistry of sour taste and the strategy to reduce sour taste | National Library of Medicine