food mood

How to engineer a comfort food: Why certain flavors make us calm

"You feel comforted and cocooned."

In a socially distant world where most activities are off-limits, one basic source of pleasure to which we still have access is food. And few things are more pleasurable than comfort food.

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Americans purchased 50 percent more cookies and salty snacks in March than they did during the same period last year, according to the Food Industry Association. People are also making their own comfort food: King Arthur's flour sales rose by more than 2,000 percent in March and there's unprecedented Google search interest in "bread."

But do comfort foods — long associated with safety and positive memories— actually comfort us? Scientists can point to a few reasons why the answer is yes.

Marie Wright is a prolific food creator, chief global flavorist at Archer Daniels Midland, and food scientist who has invented over 1,500 unique flavors. She tells Inverse that comfort foods are powerful because they make people feel good — at least in the short-term.

Mood food — Comfort foods can modulate mood by igniting a sense of nostalgia and triggering positive memories. It's this process that can create a sense of pleasure on top of taste alone, Wright explains. Comfort food can even help people who have close relationships feel connected to their family and friends when they're actually alone, research suggests.

All of this is why people flock to comforting flavors like vanilla, caramel, and chocolate over and over again — especially during a crisis, Wright says.

"We are all feeling very anxious and we do need some kind of comfort," Wright says. "Many people cannot be comforted physically in any way, so they're getting some comfort from a bowl of ice cream. Why not?"

Creating a comfort food — Wright's work is Bon Appétit meets beakers. She works in a test kitchen and a laboratory creating and testing flavors for potential customers. She also trains other flavorists in the art of flavor and aroma creation.

Wright has a unique pulse on what the public craves. While she tends to decline on saying what brands she invents flavors for, she has created more than a thousand flavors for major food and beverage companies — mixtures like apple-peach and vanilla-bourbon.

"You feel comforted and cocooned."

Since Covid-19 emerged, she's seen an uptick in people's consumption of carbonated drinks, alcohol, processed foods, dairy, and confection, especially chocolate. Wright is seeing less interest in newer flavors and beverages, like cold brew.

"Even now with all the interesting exotic things that we have, people tend to go back to the basic ones," Wright says.

This desire for the tried-and-true is reflected in purchasing habits. Hungry for the familiar and looking for a longer shelf-life, consumers are buying more Spaghetti-Os, Goldfish, Kraft macaroni and cheese, and packaged cookies during the pandemic compared to previous months, the New York Times reports.

“People are gravitating towards more comforting food or big brands because they feel safe,” Wright says. “And at the moment, we don't feel safe.”

Taste-wise, Wright has noticed people reaching for flavors long-established as comforting: vanilla, caramel, chocolate, citrus, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, strawberries, coffee, and tea.

What actually makes food a "comfort food" is context-dependent and different for everyone, Wright says. For some people, a plate of rice and beans conjures childhood aromas as the dish simmered on the stove. For others, chicken noodle soup induces memories of comfort from a parent during illness.

Whatever your chosen comfort food, it has tremendous power to elicit nostalgia — transport us back to afternoon snacks after school or a birthday from childhood. Beyond taste, aromas from certain foods also spark memory — smells are processed in the olfactory lobe and quickly reach the limbic system, which deals with emotions and memory.

"When you think about nostalgic food as well, it can sometimes take you back to your childhood," Wright explains. "You feel comforted and cocooned."

Why do we want comfort foods?

Humans have long taken pleasure in food, but it wasn't until the late nineties that dictionaries defined the term "comfort food," and the concept cemented into common language.

Historically, people eat more comfort food amidst a crisis. This habit was documented after September 11 and during recent economic downturns. The current return to the familiar is part of a predicted trend.

When faced with negative emotions — uncertainty about the future or financial anxiety — people often use food to regulate these feelings. (Strangely, people also eat comforting dishes in times of jubilation and celebration.)

People tend to crave sweet foods when under stress, studies show. One theory explaining the stress-sweetness connection argues that there's an evolutionary basis for these sugar cravings. Researchers think that the energy signaled by sweetness might be what an organism needs to deal with the stressor itself.

In times of loneliness, boredom, or negative emotions, research shows engaging nostalgia can improve mood, increase self-esteem, and bolster social bonds. Food is one tool to revisit meaningful memories.

Food is emotional, Wright explains, because where we store all our information about taste and flavor is the same areas of the brain that we store emotions, our reactions to things, and our memories.

Eating can also induce a range of "happiness chemicals" like dopamine and serotonin, which activate the brain's pleasure centers.

"It is a wonderful thing that we can change our mood by what we eat and what we smell," Wrights says.

How long can the comfort last?— Some evidence indicates that what makes comfort foods especially powerful isn't their ability to elevate mood — it's their ability to make people feel like they are less alone.

Still, other research shows that comfort food's feel-good effects can be short-lived. Considering the food most often considered comforting — items like chocolate and casserole — comfort foods can also come with health costs.

"I'm not suggesting that we eat pints and pints of ice cream," Wright cautions. "It's overeating that can cause a lot of the issues because your body really can't cope with it."

But it's unlikely to suffer health costs because of an occasional treat. Ultimately, it's natural to crave your aunt's pasta bolognese — and in times like these, small pleasures can have real, lasting upsides.

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