Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Tastes Like Home

What would you rather eat – sautéed duck breast with a chestnut foam nestling on forest mushrooms enlivened with herbs de Provence or some roast chicken with vegetables? It rather depends, doesn’t it? Are you in the mood for a big night out or a quiet night in? We recognize that either of these dishes could be terrific in the right circumstances. So how does the humble roast chicken compete with the clearly more gastronomically adventurous dish? The answer is that sometimes we simply feel like comfort food, food that is not only familiar but also part of our childhood, our culture and that reminds us of ‘home’.

Even haute cuisine chefs recognize the power of simple, familiar food. Chef Alain Ducasse, weighed down as he is by multiple Michelin stars, produces at his flagship Paris restaurant a main course of Bresse chicken and spring vegetables. It is a very good (and – it goes without saying – expensive) chicken, but simple nonetheless. The anointed head of the new British food movement, Fergus Henderson, knows too that the dish of Middlewhite (pork) and peas served at his St John restaurant in London is memorable not just for being delicious but for the resemblance it bears to home cooking.

In a North American context, the prototypical comfort food is chicken soup. Researchers Jordan Troisi and Shira Gabriel from the State University of New York, Buffalo recently set out to examine where the comfort in this particular comfort food comes from[i]. Their starting point is previous research, unconnected to foods, showing that feelings of loneliness are often offset by social surrogates, including favorite television programs and the lives of celebrities. They suggest that some foods act in much the same way. Why? Because they are foods that have most often been eaten in the company of those with whom we have important relationships, including parents, siblings and partners. They argue that the feelings of psychological comfort that were experienced at the time of eating such foods becomes ‘encoded’ with those foods.

This idea makes sense and is also consistent with how we typically develop likes and dislikes for food. In the latter case, food flavour become associated with their metabolic consequences – provision of calories or other important nutrients – and this association is expressed in future in terms of liking. This form of associative learning can also be seen when a novel flavour is paired with something that is already liked – a sweet taste, a convivial environment or a famous actor or sports personality.

How did Trosi and Gabriel make their case? First they divided the 111 university student participants according to whether or not they considered chicken noodle soup to be a comfort food or not. Next, in each approximately equal group of students they were asked to undertake a word completion task. This involved asking the participants to complete word fragments, some of which could be made into whole words that were associated with relationships (e.g., welcome, like, include) and other fragments into different sorts of words unrelated to relationships. At the same time the students either consumed the soup or not.

The researchers were interested in how many words fragments were completed as relationship-related words. As they hypothesized, the number of relationship words completed was highest when the soup was eaten ….. but only for those who considered chicken noodle soup a comfort food. The interpretation by the authors was that the soup activated those relationship-related words because of past experiences of the soup in the context of their own important relationships.

One other characteristic of comfort food, according to these researchers, is that because it evokes associations with positive relationships, it may actually counteract feelings of loneliness. To test this notion, in a second experiment, another group of university students were divided via a standardized “Attachment Scale” according to whether their relationship style was generally ‘secure’ or ‘insecure’ – that is, those whose experience of relationships is generally positive or not, respectively. Half of each of these groups was then asked to write about a fight they had had in the past with someone who was close to them. The other half wrote about something completely neutral. Next, the participants were asked to write about their experience with either a comfort food or a novel food. Finally, all participants filled out a standardized “Loneliness Scale”.

Consistent with their predictions, the authors found that “securely attached participants who wrote about a fight with a close other experienced less loneliness if they were given the opportunity to write about their comfort food than if they wrote about a new food” (p. 750). In other words, the comfort food offset the feelings of loneliness that were evoked by writing about a relationship-threatening fight.

This research gives us some important insights into the motivations behind seeking out comfort foods. Such foods not only evoke pleasant associations, they can clearly act as surrogates in the absence of loved ones. The idea of comfort food is therefore not just merely a way of referring to home cooking – rather it is food that literally provides comfort.

While this may sound very positive, the authors raise the possibility that such effects may also underlie instances of increased eating that sometimes – and in some people – accompanies negative emotions such as loneliness, sadness and anxiety. Such ‘emotional eating’ is considered to be a risk for obesity in susceptible individuals.

We can also see some opportunities following from this research to further explore how foods may be attached to other emotions or experiences. Could we through suitable associations tailor foods or beverages to make us feel energetic or optimistic or sophisticated? Certainly, the idea that foods can influence our emotions in quite specific ways suggests a world of possibilities in intelligently utilizing the various elements – sensory, image, packaging – that have an impact on our food choices to increase positive emotions.