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Science Says There's No Such Thing As 'Comfort Food'. We All Beg to Differ

Whatever the research says, most of us know that happiness is a sloppy food.
 
 
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Most of us know this intuitively – that comfort and junk foods are subtly distinct. The former is an emotional as well as a nutritional unit, and the latter is merely a sugar rush. Besides which, no cookbook would dare put the word "junk" in its title, but whole shelves are devoted to the art of the comfort food.

If, after a hard day, you make yourself mashed potatoes with gravy, or mac and cheese with brown sauce, or scrambled eggs with the consistency of an Ultimate Frisbee, it is probably because someone once made it for you exactly that way. And while no two people's comfort foods are alike, the terrain is broadly the same: sloppy food you can spoon-feed yourself, with at least one element everyone else finds revolting.

For this reason, other people's comfort food has an editorial interest. It has a story, as Mark Bittman reflected recently in the New York Times in a charming piece about bagels and lox. Or it adds a certain humanity to high office. Madeleine Albright, in  an interview I did with her many years ago, volunteered that after a rough day, "I come home, put on a flannel nightgown, [and] make myself the most disgusting thing, which is cottage cheese with ketchup."

(If one needs further evidence for how fascinating other people's food choices are, one need only look at all the websites devoted to  death row inmates' last meals.)

So it is with some surprise, then, that we greet research coming out of the University of Minnesota this month suggesting that our faith in certain foods to lift our spirits and soothe our feelings  is entirely without cause.

In a study presented at a meeting of the  Association for Psychological Science, subjects were asked to come up with two foods – one they thought of as a "comfort" food – which is to say a food which they said had the power to change their moods – and one that they liked but which had no emotional resonance.

As in a scene from Clockwork Orange, subjects were then shown a video designed to disturb them in some way and, after it was over, asked how they felt (which was always unhappy). They were then given either their self-identified comfort food, the other food, a granola bar (as a kind of kill-joy control), or nothing at all – and again asked how they were feeling.

The results surprised even the researchers. Irrespective of which food they ate, three minutes after the test, all participants in the study had cheered up. "People can develop these very unhealthy habits, where they just immediately reach for these yummy foods when they feel sad," said researcher Heather Scherschel Wagner. It makes no sense, she said, because "whether it's your comfort food, or it's a granola bar, or if you eat nothing at all, you will eventually feel better. Basically, comfort food can't speed up that healing process."

I have several problems with the methodology of this study, chief among them what happens when you ask people to self-report feelings. As we know from the way we ourselves might lie or exaggerate in a private journal, the very fact of studying one's own reaction to something changes its nature.

Secondly, an artificially-induced feeling of crappiness is, one would think, completely different to the multi-layered and highly personal reasons one might turn to comfort food in regular life – a specific response to a specific and complicated psychological state that it is almost impossible to recreate in lab conditions.

 
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