Does the joy associated with digging into a cozy casserole come more from memories or from ingredients?
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baked macaroni and cheese with broiled tomatoes
Credit: Armando Rafael

How does comfort food live up to its name? Whether you prefer cozy casseroles or mac and cheese, you might be wondering how—and why—certain foods comfort us. By all accounts it's about satisfying the emotions, not simply the hunger. It's the food we eat to relieve stress, in celebration, or sometimes as a response to colder, harsher weather. But recent studies show that comfort foods are also deeply entwined with memory.

Craving Comfort

When it comes to the senses, associations can trigger our happy place. A study in the journal Appetite calls out that "comfort food is associated with relationships." In other words, memories of eating a certain dish in your childhood that was prepared by a loved one eventually becomes comfort food. It points to food's ability "to fulfill belongingness needs," providing an emotional, social benefit. These associations can be wrapped up in smell, texture, and taste. A review of research in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science finds these are all factors that scientists are studying.

Additionally, the winter doldrums can be a real thing. Darker, colder days can give us cues—whether it's nutritional, chemical, or psychological—to combat the season's climate. The brain and the stomach are a team. Under stress, there are certain things, like sugar or salt, that certainly provide an instant, bio-chemical rush. That being said, researchers are still studying whether certain foods actually provide emotional comfort or whether we just assume they do. Are there psychological mood-boosters that are more than a temporary food rush? A study published in the American Psychological Associations journal Health Psychology found that in "tests of two groups of people, comfort foods led to 'significant' mood improvement, but this improvement was not measurably different when compared with other foods or no food at all." It concluded that "Individuals may be giving comfort food 'credit' for mood effects that would have occurred even in the absence of the comfort food."

A Memory Menu

This does seem to lead us back to the power of memory. Your comfort food menu may be different from your neighbor's due to your unique experiences and associations. Research reviewed in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science points out that what constitutes comfort food differs widely and with varying results among people and cultures. Bubbling baked pasta, ice cream, or crispy fried chicken may be the ideal comfort food for some, but don't forget hearty soups that can do the trick with wonderful aromas and nutrient-rich ingredients. Comfort doesn't have to be a dense carb bomb. This is a judgement-free zone, but as with anything, even a little comfort can go a long way.

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