Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Comfort Foods

Down in the dumps? Life not too flash? Or simply just want to enjoy a feel good food? What would be your comfort food? No doubt many would turn to chocolate, bit I’m certain there are other choices too. Camembert on thick fruit toast, creamy pumpkin soup, mushroom and egg on a wholemeal bun, super premium ice cream with chocolate coated almonds. I best stop there before I give away too many personal secrets. So what’s yours?

Psychology link

There is often a psychological component to a food you like (and those you dislike). Chocolate pudding could bring back memories of Sunday lunch at Grandmas, or fish and chips might have been the Friday night special when you were a kid and you were allowed to stay up and watch the late movie.

Brian Wansink’s research group at Cornell University in the US have taken an interest in comfort foods (see __Mindless Eating__, Bantam Books 2006) and found men and women were different. Golleee! Yep, the ladies preferred sweet foods and the blokes generally went for savoury comfort foods, except when they were offered super-premium ice cream with chocolate coated almonds. Everyone loves their ice cream.

Boys vs girls

The guys said they preferred pasta, pizza and soup because they felt spoiled or pampered and being the focus of attention when given these foods. Comfort foods did their magic especially when they were prepared “just like mama used to make”, and lost some of their comforting effect when they deviated from expectation in look and taste.

The women didn’t rate such savoury foods as highly because they generally reminded them of the time spent in preparing the dishes. For the women, cake and chocolate were preferred because they required no effort, no prep, no cleaning, just pop out and buy your favourite.

The mood made a difference too. A happy mood often led to more healthier choices, such as a pizza instead of a bag of potato chips/crisps.

Change begets change

Anyway, that has been our common understanding of comfort foods. When life throws out a challenge we tend to towards familiar foods that make us feel good. Stacy Wood who is a professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina has put her spin on comfort foods. She found that when people were subjected to a changing environment (eg move house, go on a trip, traumatic event) they chose different, unfamiliar foods, not the stabilizing comfort foods. Paradoxically, people predicted that if they had to move town they would much prefer comfort foods over foods they had never experienced before. So, what they predicted would happen was different to what they eventually did.

What does it all mean?

It all depends on the circumstances. If you have scored some winners at work and then choose a pizza or ice cream, there is synergistic effect of boosting your mood. If you have moved to a different address, some distance from your previous home, along with the hassle of packing, it makes sense that many people will check out new supermarkets and restaurants and experiment with new foods in a new place. What I think Stacy Wood is trying to demonstrate is humans adapt in different ways and an upheaval in life doesn’t send everyone in search of a comfort food.

Ever travelled to a very different country? Did you decide to eat like the locals or did you ask the concierge if they knew if Pizza Hut had a franchise close by? The answer to that question might give you an insight into your relationship with comfort foods.

Reference: Journal of Consumer research 2010; 36: doi 10.1086/644749


Unknown said...

What about the dopamine connection and the spike when we eat junk food (or go comfort shoe shopping for that matter)? How does one even start getting off the rollercoaster?

Glenn Cardwell said...

There's a whole career there Pam. There are many factors that influence our relationship with food. The food companies make food that we enjoy and repeatedly buy. That way they make a profit and keep the shareholders happy. I don't know how to get off the rollercoaster. My simplistic response is that when we have self-respect we start to make better decisions about our choices.