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Have hybrid foods gone too far?

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The Cronut, created by New York City pastry chef Dominque Ansel, set the culinary scene ablaze last year. Curious fans soon snaked around the SoHo-based bakery, eager for their chance to sink their teeth into the flaky donut and croissant hybrid confection. Soon the rest of the nation caught on, spawning knock-off pastries not so discreetly named dossaints and cronots.

And then chef Keizo Shimamoto debuted the ramen burger in New York City. And the Waffle Taco from Taco Bell soon followed. Now, food mash-ups include the likes of SPAM-filled donuts, cheeseburger Pop-Tarts, and sushi tacos.

The food mash-up trend has yet to show signs of pumping its brakes, but have the hybrids now gone too far? Are the creations no more than the product of half-baked ideas? Have the food amalgamations become little more than provocative foodie blog fodder, synthesized more for shock value and public relations than for culinary merit?

To analyze if the hybrids have gone too far, perhaps we should hypothesize why hybrids are so popular in the first place.

Intersection of chef experimentation and diner curiosity

Hybrid foods, in fact, are nothing new. Mainstream fast-food restaurants have been tinkering with hybrids of popular and familiar foods for years with tremendous success. Items like the Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos taco, Pizza Hut’s Cheesy Bites pizza and KFC’s Double Down Chicken sandwich trigger curiosity and create buzz—for better or worse. Restaurant research firm Technomic reveals that super indulgent limited time offerings, like Wendy’s nine-patty burger and “oddities” like donut-based sandwiches often times, “are crafted more for social-media buzz than for eating”.

The hybrid experimentation has trickled down to independent restaurants and its chefs, sometimes catapulting the hybrid inventors to instant fame. So, why now in recent time have hybrids have skyrocketed as superstars in the culinary zeitgeist?

Zagat writer Kelly Dobkin offers a possible explanation from pastry chef and Cronut creator Dominque Ansel who hypothesizes that the cross-pollination of foods is a result of a chef and diner explorative overlap: “It's simple - it's the best of both worlds. We all love that!” Chef experimentation and diner curiosity are intersecting at just the right moment.”

Chefs, often today regarded as present-day raconteurs—part artists, part mad scientists-- eager to experiment with new flavor concepts by fusing classic and popular foods with hopes of emerging with the next big Franken-food.

Millienials may be the backbone of the hybrid-food fanaticism

But hybrids and mash-ups become successful only if fans, often times millennials with broader palettes, are eagerly willing to take on the role of the culinary lab rats, teeming to indulge in the experimental creations of the chefs. The crossing of chef experimentation and the burgeoning millennial population armed with more adventurous taste buds could explain the impetus behind the hybrid trend.

The popularity of food hybrids is also compounded by millennials’ fervent use of social media and its critical role in creating buzz around foods like the Cronut or the ramen burger. Whether on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, photos of hybrid foods create massive hype. Amy Guttman from NPR’s The Salt blog reports that, “These days, food fads are accelerated by social media which can be good and bad. ‘Instagramming or tweeting a picture of your cronut gives you social currency and becomes a huge part of the appeal.’”

Hybrids also capitalize on people’s feelings of sharing—and missing out-- in the quick-paced digital world. Pictures of hybrid foods on Instagram, known as food porn, have become the latest form of braggadocio and can incite admiration as well as jealousy. In The Salt blog, Marian Berelowitz comments that “the incessant stream of images surrounding a particular food or product can create FOMO, or fear of missing out, among friends and followers.”

Hype gives birth to debate

The popularity of the hybrid food trend can also be attributed to people’s love of debate. Because hybrid foods tend to combine two already popular foods, they often lead to debates about which food is better. People like to argue. And when an item like a Waffle Taco enters into the mix, arguments about which is better—the taco or the waffle—are likely to follow.

Chris Schonberger from the FirstWeFeast blog also points out that hype about hybrid foods also beget arguments about hype itself, “Hype causes people to argue about why there is hype. Seeing people argue about hype attracts attention. And on and on it goes.”

But beyond the funny names given to hybrid foods (Quesarito, Cronut, Sushrito), the whimsical portmanteaus that become branded in our minds, we have to really wonder if the hybrid trend has reached its tipping point. Will the hype suddenly deflate? Is the market becoming too saturated with hybrid foods to the point where no one cares anymore? And perhaps, most importantly, as the population becomes more educated about food and more concerned about eating healthier, will there be increased blowback to the popularity of artery-clogging hybrid foods?

The answer may lie in the term “hybrid food trend”. As quickly as foods like the Cronut court the attention and love of the public, may be as fast as they flee from memory as people exclaim “next” to pine after the next food fad.

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