Science Says There's No Such Thing As 'Comfort Food'. We All Beg to Differ
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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 ina 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.
Then again, the phenomenon of comfort food is barely complicated enough to merit study. When you are threatened, you retreat in your mind to places of happiness. Comfort food is merely an aide-mémoirethat uses more than one of your senses.
None of this undermines the fact that most comfort foods are very bad for you and are only supposed to be a once-in-a-while measure. (Michelle Obama, writing in the New York Times on Thursday, reminded us of this by castigating the food lobbies for undermining efforts to promote healthy eating among children: "Remember a few years ago when Congress declared that the sauce on a slice of pizza should count as a vegetable in school lunches?")
But since comfort food really is just a route back into memory, it seems odd to reject it as meaningless – even if it is a placebo. As unfashionable cuisines come back into style – artisinal gefilte fish, anyone? – promoted by the grandchildren of their original enthusiasts, the overlap between food, family and feeling is as strong as it ever was.
Bread sauce the consistency of glue. Fish finger sandwiches. Shepherd's pie where you mash the meat in with the potato so that the whole thing turns into a brown paste and other people at the table shout at you. It might not present well in research, but most of us know that happiness is made of exactly this.