Comfort Food

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COMFORT FOOD. Comfort food is an increasingly prominent concept in the twenty-first century. Indeed, as a consequence of the term's increased use in the English language (likely a response to increasingly stressful living conditions), the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary added "comfort food" to its list of 1997 entries, defining it as "food that comforts or affords solace; hence any food (frequently with a high sugar or carbohydrate content) that is associated with childhood or with home cooking." That same year Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary added "comfort food" to the tenth edition, defining it as "food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal." Comfort food may be best thought of as any food consumed by individuals, often during periods of stress, that evokes positive emotions and is associated with significant social relationships.

Throughout history and across cultures, food arguably has always been associated with the provision of comfort. Indeed, from the moments following birth, the crying infant is immediately soothed with mother's milk or, in more modern times, infant formula. Only in the last decade of the twentieth century, however, did the notion of comfort food as a unique concept become part of the vernacular of everyday life. Julie L. Locher and colleagues have observed that "daily life in the modern world, with its concomitant stress, psychological discomfort, and personal dislocation, has given rise to the need for comfort foods, and in a capitalist economy, of course, manufacturers have fully exploited such a need" (2002, p. 5). Restaurateurs and cookbook writers have taken advantage of individuals' needs for comfort as well. Contemporary societies have witnessed a proliferation of restaurants, including high-end restaurants, that feature comfort food on their daily menus. Additionally, growing numbers of cookbooks are dedicated exclusively to recipes for comfort foods, and whole cookbooks focus entirely on single comfort foods, such as macaroni and cheese (Schwartz, 2001). The notion of comfort food appears regularly in popular magazines (aimed primarily at women), television, and literature. Heralding the rise in the popularity of comfort food, Bon Appetit devoted most of its February 1998 issue to comfort food.

Several researchers have either demonstrated or speculated that links exist between physical or psychological aspects associated with mood and the consumption of particular foods, especially those foods high in carbohydrates (both sugar and starch) and fat. The most conclusive and widespread evidence arising from this investigation is that foods high in carbohydrates increase the availability of tryptophan, which increases the level of serotonin in the brain and results in a better mood state. Another plausible biological explanation for the link between food and mood maintains that foods that taste good may promote the release of endogenous opioids and thereby alter one's mood state. These physical and psychological observations may help explain some of the food objects individuals consume to provide comfort but certainly not all foods. Further, they do not explain the diversity of food choices among individuals and groups or why people choose some foods and not others for comfort.

Some researchers have emphasized the social dimensions of comfort food, noting that comfort foods are those familiar to the individual, are associated with feelings of nostalgia, are usually convenient to prepare and consume, are often indulgent, and typically provide a sense of physical as well as emotional comfort. According to Brian Wansink and Cynthia Sangerman, the most commonly reported comfort foods consumed in the United States are potato chips, followed by ice cream, cookies, and candy (2000, p. 1). All of these investigators found gender differences in what individuals perceive as comfort foods. Men are more likely to prefer entire meals, while women are more likely to prefer sweets (including chocolate) and snack foods. Age differences were identified also. Younger people prefer sweets and snacks, while older people prefer hot foods like soup and mashed potatoes.

Comfort foods are consumed under different circumstances in individuals' lives. Both social and psychological research indicates that when persons are feeling either sad or lonely, they may be more likely to consume particular foods. Additionally, researchers have found that persons consume comfort food when they are feeling "jubilant," when they need an incentive to get through something particularly stressful, or when they wish to be rewarded for something they have accomplished. The emphasis in most writings on comfort foods, in both the popular press and the academic press, is on personal sources of distress that encourage consumption of comfort foods.

Comfort foods are consumed during periods of societal uncertainty and crises. For example, immediately following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, restaurateurs across the United States reported increased sales of comfort food items, such as soup, mashed potatoes, puddings, and macaroni and cheese (Thorn, 2001). A Nielsen survey of grocery stores reported a significant increase in the sales of both snack foods and instant potatoes ("Nation Turning to Comfort Food," 2001). These reports may help explain why the notion of comfort foods became so important at that particular time in history. Conditions of postmodern societies present individuals with stressors that are often beyond their control. At the same time, societies have become consumer-oriented, and individuals have become more defined by the objects they consume. The consumption of particular food objects for comfort may be one of the primary ways individuals can maintain control. Thus, eating comfort foods may be a means of maintaining control over the self when all else seems out of control. In essence, comfort food provides individuals with a sense of security during troubling times by evoking emotions associated with safer and happier times.

See also Slow Food; Snacks.


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Julie L. Locher