As I sink my fork tines through the pasta shell blanketed in red sauce and stuffed with cheese, I am transported to my grandma’s kitchen. I can smell garlic sizzling in olive oil; I can see her standing at the counter; I can hear the spoon clinking against the sides of the metal mixing bowl, scraping up the ricotta filling. I savor a mouthful, feeling a warmth emanating from my core, the kind of hug from within that only that combination of cheese-stuffed noodles nestled and baked in sauce elicits.
My grandma may not have made the pan of manicotti I devoured during a particularly deadline-heavy week, but nostalgia is a heady ingredient. Just the smell and taste of the dish made me feel comforted in a way that few foods can. It makes sense: Living in six different countries before the age of fifteen, my Sita’s table—and the pans of manicotti and platters of grape leaves, hummus, and freshly baked pita our family shared together every summer—was where I felt most at home.
Food preferences are personal, particularly when it comes to comfort food. After all, fond food memories are influenced by where you grew up, what you grew up eating, and with whom. But research shows that our minds have just as much sway over our comfort-food cravings as our hearts.
From a physiological standpoint, humans eat because we need energy. To meet those metabolic nutritional needs, we are inherently wired to seek out energy-dense foods, those that are rich in carbohydrates, fats, and protein. When those foods also taste good, our bodies crave them even more.
So, it’s no surprise that Americans’ favorite comfort foods fit that make-up. In a 2015 Harris Poll survey of 2,252 adults, pizza tops the list as the most popular comfort food, chocolate and ice cream tie for second, and mac ‘n’ cheese and chips round out the top five.
Jonathan Allen, a professor in N.C. State University’s department of food, bioprocessing, and nutrition sciences, explains why this is.
“A lot of these foods that are very popular, particularly snack foods, are high in sugar, salt, and fat. Sometimes the sugar is there, and you don’t even notice it. If you hold a starchy food in your mouth for a little bit, you have enzymes that make sugars, and you can taste the sweetness that you don’t taste when you first put it in your mouth,” he says. “That’s an evolved response to learning that a food that has starch is pleasurable, so you want to eat more of that food because it’s high in available energy.”
In a 2003 University of Illinois study exploring comfort-food preferences, Brian Wansink cites evidence that certain foods can have seemingly addictive qualities and that eating highly palatable foods also releases trace amounts of opiates, which elevate mood and satisfaction.
Lindsay Tanskey, a postdoctoral teaching scholar at N.C. State and a public health and nutrition expert, says that besides being tasty, comfort-food triggers and preferences are also determined by psychological factors.
“There’s this idea of highly palatable foods that have an almost addictive quality triggering reward in the brain that keeps us coming back for more. Comfort food, specifically, is [associated with] nostalgia and a specific association we have with a person, place, or time that invokes comfort,” she explains.
As a result, research pertaining to the psychology of comfort-food preferences tends to focus on triggers—when or why we seek out the foods we do—and what the measurable benefits or effects are.
“Overwhelmingly, people believe that eating their favorite comfort food will improve their mood or help alleviate any negative emotion,” Tanskey says. “But when you look at the research, that’s not necessarily borne out; it’s not clear how effective comfort food is in reducing negative emotions.”
In fact, Wansink’s framework suggests that there are stronger consequences for women in that they may feel guilty and less healthy after indulging in comfort foods, which is attributed to body image expectations set by societal standards.
The Harris Poll findings also show that women tend to seek out their favorite comfort food when they’re stressed (54 percent), whereas men are more likely to turn to comfort food after a really good day (43 percent).
But regardless of gender, one of the main reasons we seek out comfort food is to fulfill our fundamental need to belong.
“Because of the connections comfort foods have to relationships and past memory, sometimes loneliness is the reason that people seek out that comfort food,” Tanskey says. “That’s been one of the areas [where] comfort food has been somewhat effective, in terms of reducing feelings of social isolation.”
The need for social connection might explain why we’ve seen an increase of comfort-food dishes on restaurant menus in the last decade. In an article entitled “Contemporary Comfort Foods: Bringing Back Old Favorites” published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2008, the author writes that some food experts point to the economic recession and terrorism as contributing factors in the rise of comfort foods and suggests that the resurgence of comfort food offerings by specialty food retailers can be traced to 9/11.
Given our divisive political climate, the widespread imbalance of power in the #MeToo era, and a general sense of malaise looming before the midterm elections, if ever there was a time to conduct additional scientific research on comfort food, I think it’s now. In the meantime, please pass the mac ‘n’ cheese.