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October 9, 2009

Study disputes comfort food theory


A researcher at the University of South Carolina believes that people are not as likely as we think they are to turn to comfort food in times of stress.

Mmmm. South Carolina: Grits, barbecue, hush puppies, fried fish.

Oh, sorry. I got off track for a moment.

I'm not going to say this is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of. I'm going to look at the evidence and make an informed assessment. ...

Stacy Wood's paper, "The Comfort Food Fallacy: Avoiding Old Favorites in Times of Change," was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

In her work, she found that times of stress and change correlated with choosing unfamiliar foods. In other words, your significant other breaks up with you so instead of reaching for the carton of chocolate mint ice cream you decide to go for the eel at a sushi bar.

I don't believe it. 

In one study she created a fictional student and then asked participants whether he would reach for a familiar brand of potato chips in a stressful time or a brand of British "crisps" in flavors like Cheese & Pickles. However, let me point out that these are both potato chips -- greasy, salty, caloric. That's my definition of comfort food, familiar or not.

OK, now that I've had my fun, and methodology aside, the research does raise an interesting question: Is it possible our assumptions about comfort food aren't always true? Do some of us take the opportunity in times of stress and negative change in our lives to change other things and have new experiences -- including food? Are we more open to broader change in times of change?

I should create a poll when I get into work asking whether readers are more likely to eat comfort foods or unfamiliar foods in times of stress.

(Photo of black-and-white cream pie by Lloyd Fox/Sun photographer)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 7:11 AM | | Comments (21)


I think people absolutely do turn to comfort foods in times of stress. Yesterday, I would argue that I think that's why the plain Jane restaurants with good and plentiful good ole comfort foods seem to be doing so much better than other fancier restaurants.

But then I read a headline in the NYT announcing the hard times for Jewish deli. If Jewish deli isn't doing well, the ultimate of my comfort foods, I just don't get it.

In extreme times of stress and trauma, I feel more prone to stomach ailments, so eating a new or unusual food is absolutely out of the question for me. The last thing you want at that point is to think too hard about what you are eating, or suffer the consequences of an upset digestive system. That's why I think food at funerals is always so familiar. I grew up in the south, so at the last few family funerals, people have brought barbeque, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, potatoes, pie, all things you'd see at a church picnic. Nobody brought anything atypical to the culture. There was no sushi or chicken tikka masala, because those aren't home foods for that area. Death may be an extreme example, but even when I'm having a bad day at work, I'm thinking more about chocolate chip cookies then I am about dim sum. (again, comfort food is culture specific.)

In times of stress, I'll go for food I overstuffed corned beef sandwich on rye slathered with Russian dressing, a big bowl of Thai peasant rice (extra spicy), a half duckling cooked German style (with roast potatoes and red cabbage), a platter of kashe varnishkes. These may not be everyone's definition of comfort foods. But I'm comfortable with them...and they comfort me.

There's no way! That study is whack. I almost always turn to Cheetos.

If I am stressed, I always want carbs - chocolate, baked potatoes, garlic bread. That and a glass of wine.

Usually, I tune out after the words "a new study has shown that ..."

Remember the whole, 'a new study has shown that margarine is bad, butter is good,' and then there was the 'butter is bad, margarine is good,' study, and then the 'oh wait, no, margarine is bad, butter is good' study.

btw, the pie in the picture looks amazing, where is it from?

Yes, I keep looking at it. But it's not from a restaurant unfortunately, but some food story. EL

Not buying that study at all. Under stress, I want cheese & salt. Grilled cheese with tomato soup or mac & cheese are on the top of my list, with popcorn, fritos, chips a close second.

Carolb, I'm with you - carbs and wine.

Joyce, That picture looks like mother's black bottom pie?

Do you remember, EL?

Good lord. I thought you were a regular reader of Dining@Large. Click here. EL

Joyce W., I have the Black Bottom pie recipe if EL doesn't.

I looked up the Journal of Consumer Research on-line and it appears to be a peer reviewed journal, so, there may be some validity to her findings. However, I wonder if in her paper she proved there is a statistical significant difference in people who would crave unfamiliar food then those who would go for more familiar food. That didn't seem to be mentioned in the article that is linked.

Personally, stress doesn't make me crave any particular food, but, those British crisps sound interesting.

Well, I'm about to go pick up an order of French fries, so I think my answer is pretty clear ...

thanks for the recipe, EL!

Homemade sour beef and dumplings makes me feel comfortable all over the place. In fact, just the smell of it lowers my diastolic blood pressure 20 points.

There are different degrees of stress, and I react to them in different ways. When under mild stress, sure, I'll try new things. It makes me happy to try new things, and when I'm a bit stressed, I want to be happy to combat the stress. If I'm in the "buck up and soldier on" phase of moderate to bad stress, then I'm likely to reach for my comfort foods (raw kibbee, sashimi and Ben & Jerry's by the fifth).

But, if the stress is really awful, I either can't eat, don't want to eat or can only eat really mild foods like bread, bananas or curd rice.

Survey, shmurvey! Light stress pushes me to carbs or sweets; heavy stress usually requires both. Not remotely healthy, but they usually make me feel better pretty fast..

Elizabeth, thanks for the pie recipe--it looks gorgeous,, and special enough for Christmas dinner.

Um, Cletus, but wouldn't t you have to PLAN to be stressed for Sour Beef? I mean, mine soaks for about 4 days. If I were stressed that long, I'd be suicidal!

Anticipation, Dottie, an-ti-ci-pa-tion...You and I both know that it's sooooo good, just the decision to have it can melt away that Big Wonker of a Headache. I think it ought to be Baltimore's official cold-weather entre, with oysters on the half shell as the appetizer, of course, and a big slice of pecan pie with real cream drizzled on top for dessert. Then it's off to GBMC for catheterization and coffee.


Got it, Cleatus. Even though sauerbraten recipes are as subjective as crab cake recipes, most of them ARE good. BTW, your menu had me at raw oysters. I'm a recent convert, but now I adore them raw, fried, BBQ'd, steamed and scalded. (We prepare them all of these ways at our church group's annual oyster feast.) The only thing I don't "get" is stew...oysters in hot milk? Ewww.

Hey Dottie, ever try "Angels on Horseback?" Funny, funny name for a large raw oyster wrapped in a thin slice of bacon with a toothpick through it and then baked until the bacon crisps and served on a small bread round--hmmmm. Another great fall appetizer. Recipe's on p. 76 of "The Joy of Cooking." I'd love to know where that name came from...Sure, oysters = angels, but shouldn't it be "Angels on Piggyback?"

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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