Although the phrase is relatively new, the feeling associated with comfort food isn’t.
Be it crispy French fries, a bowl of piping hot Maggi, gooey cheese balls, a scoop of chocolate ice cream or a slice of black forest cake, everyone has their own idea of what comfort food is. It could be any dish but what’s comforting to one person may not be to another, and so the idea of comfort food is subjective. Usually, dishes that are considered comfort food are high in carbohydrates, fatty acids and sugar.
The phrase ‘comfort food’ only appeared as recently as the 1960s. It became popular around 1977, when The Washington Post described one of the featured recipes as ‘comfort food’. Although the phrase is relatively new, the feeling associated with comfort food isn’t. Lots of emotions may be associated with comfort food, including nostalgia. It’s possible that someone grew up eating a particular food item and has grown to associate it with comfort, or that they turned to a particular food in times of distress and it has become their go-to meal whenever they feel low.
Research has established that foods that are high in carbohydrates, sugar, and fatty acids trigger the brain's reward system and pleasure centres. This is why the brain perceives certain foods as comforting. Stress and mood can often influence what people crave. The hippocampus, insula and caudate are parts of the brain that are believed to be responsible for mood, and studies have shown that these are activated when people crave food. These three areas in the brain also process memory, reward, and pleasure systems.
Eating certain foods releases neurotransmitters in the brain. This makes people feel happy by physically stimulating the brain’s reward system. Studies have also shown that the body releases feel-good hormones like dopamine when fed with its favourite comfort food. This is why comfort food cravings arise at times when people are feeling their lowest. The stereotype that people gorge on ice cream or pizza after a break up has some truth to it. It also makes sense why people want to buy packets of junk food after a long day at work.
Comfort food is also heavily associated with positive memories and relationships that make people feel loved and safe. This holds true for foods that have nostalgic value and also meals shared with loved ones. It’s possible for someone to miss dishes that their parents or grandparents cooked when they were kids since food is a strong trigger for memory. This was accurately depicted in Marcel Proust’s work, where he wrote about a protagonist who was reminded of his grandmother after eating a piece of madeleine soaked in tea.
When we think about our favourite comfort foods, it is often the case that they are connected to a good feeling or memory. It’s also not necessary to look at comfort food as being unhealthy. Even healthy food like salmon and nuts can be considered comfort food as they are high in fatty acids. Research has proved that fatty acid emulsion affects the same area of the brain that deals with mood.
Negative connotations attached to comfort food aren’t always true. Sometimes, the food we eat may be healthy and remind us of positive memories at the same time. And even if it isn’t healthy, we can take comfort in the knowledge that it will contribute to boosting levels of happy hormones in our bodies.