There are many different types of food in the world, and many people have differences in opinions on these varieties of food. However, there is one type of food that everyone in the world can universally agree on as being the best type of food; comfort food. Comfort food is able to be widely accepted as the best type of food, because the dishes vary from country to country. The main question that needs to be answered for this type of food is, does the name really hold true, is comfort food actually comforting?
The ins and outs of comfort food
One place that you can always find comfort food being portrayed is on television. For example, in the movie Legally Blonde, the main character, Elle Woods, has to deal with her boyfriend breaking up with her. After the break up, they show Elle woods sobbing in her bed with a half-eaten box of chocolates and an open container of ice cream. This is portraying that Elle Woods feels that a box of chocolates and ice cream are her comfort foods. Another way in which you can see comfort food being portrayed on television is through advertisements. During the winter, the soup brand Campbell’s always plays a commercial of a snowman walking through the front door, and once the snowman takes a bite of the chicken noodle soup, his snow instantly melts and a little boy is the one holding the spoon. This advertisement is portraying Campbell’s chicken noodle soup as being a comfort food when you are cold.
These examples of comfort food from movies and advertisements shows that there can be comfort food for different seasons of the weather, and different moods people are in. The reason that comfort food can come in many different varieties is because of our brains.
“Normal eating behavior is controlled by a complex interplay between two parallel signaling systems regulating energy balance and emotional–motivational processes, respectively.8 The homeostatic system, responsible for energy balance regulation, comprises peripheral endocrine and metabolic signals acting on hypothalamic and brainstem nuclei to modulate energy intake and expenditure according to the body’s energy resources and needs (Fig. 1). These homeostatic-metabolic controls of feeding behavior are integrated with a large neural system implicated in hedonic control of food intake that attributes rewarding properties to foods, thereby enabling these foods to generate emotional responses” (306).
According to Weltens, Zhao, and Oudenhove, even regular eating habits are controlled by a reward system that occurs in our brains. The main neurotransmitter in our brains that controls this reward system is dopamine. What dopamine’s main job is to basically judge the food that we place in our mouth by determining whether or not the texture of the food is good, whether the food actually tastes good, and whether the food has a good or bad smell. Once these items are determined, dopamine then will place a reward value on the food, and this is what helps to determine what we consider comfort food to be.
This was also tested in rats and it was found that:
“Stress did not alter the preference for comfort food but decreased food intake. In the elevated plus-maze (EPM) test, stressed rats were less likely to enter/remain in the open arms, as well as being more likely to enter/remain in the closed arms, than were control rats, both conditions being more pronounced in the rats given access to comfort food” (211).
This study posted in the International Journal On the Biology of Stress, shows that comfort food was the “go-to” food for the rats whose moods were induced by stress. This goes to show that Elle Woods’ and rats’ brains seem to have a lot in common, as she went straight to the box of chocolates and ice cream when she was in a stressful situation.
Comfort food around the world
Every country has their own type of comfort food, and one common theme that shows through for all countries’ comfort food is that it is typically something hot, and the texture is usually creamy or soft. One type of comfort food in France is their French onion soup (Franklin), and one comfort food in India is Moong dal khichdi (folomojo). According to the Food Network, the top ten comfort foods in America are pizza, biscuits, hand cut fries, spaghetti, chicken soup, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, burritos, mac & cheese, and grilled cheese. Needless to say, comfort food is not something you necessarily would want to eat every day for the sake of your health.
It seems to be universal that comfort food does not have to have a ton of flavor, but it does have to appeal to all of the senses. One comfort food that is given to every kid around the world when they are sick is some type of soup. This is the perfect food to appeal to all of the senses; you can smell how delicious the soup is by the steam coming off the broth, you can hear the soup you are eating when you take a big spoonful and slurp it into your mouth, then you can taste all the flavors of the soup after that big slurp, and finally (this is probably the most “comforting” part about eating soup) you can feel the warmth start out by the broth flowing into your mouth like a river, and then when you swallow it you notice that this river of warmth can be felt all the way from your mouth, down your throat, and into your stomach.
The good thing about comfort food is that it will always be around as long as people need comforting. Whether you enjoy a big bowl of French onion soup, or a greasy slice of pizza, there is a type of comfort food for everyone. The next time you do eat comfort food, really stop and enjoy it and realize that your brain is rewarding you with dopamine for the food you have chosen. Because of the fact that there is legitimately something in your brain that “rewards” you while eating comfort food, I will argue that comfort food is in fact comforting.