Ever loved a food because it tastes good? That feeling that one bite is never enough. You daydream about it. You obsess about it. You swear you cannot stop eating it.
Here’s a secret: it doesn’t taste “good”. It is not your taste buds singing its praises – it is probably all in our heads. Chances are that feeling of deliciousness comes from the emotion we associate with a particular food. That’s what is meant when “it tastes good” is uttered. You see, our taste buds do not have the ability to taste “good”. Sweet, salty, tart, sour can be identified, “good” cannot (and that is also why good is very subjective). That is why one person gravitates toward potato chips while another cannot have enough chocolate cake. This “good” taste is really associated with the connection the food has with an event, person, or even situation.
A study done by the University of Buffalo examines the link between foods one finds comforting and the relationship with the person first preparing it. Why are grandma’s mashed potatoes the best? Perhaps the first time you ate them, grandma was joyfully spoon-feeding them to you as you giggled uncontrollably from your high chair; or maybe because that’s what you ate after celebrating your first little league win. That connection with the person or event surrounding you is what makes it taste good. It is not the ingredients per se that spark the “it tastes good” moment, but rather the connection it elicits of a happy time or place.
It is very natural for our body and mind to want relief from emotions. It is a reaction we tend to have because no one wants to feel bad or uncomfortable. We try to calm ourselves down by finding ways to feel better. We sort through our memory bank for times when we had happiness and look for ways to recreate it. The emotions associated with grandma – not the mashed potatoes are what the brain is trying to recollect every time it asks for mashed potatoes. When emotions get hard, we tend to want to find things that will relieve them. Soothing ourselves with food seems to work. It takes away the emotion: the anger, the sadness, loneliness. Putting a piece of food in our mouth, biting down and getting that sensory connection makes the emotion disappear.
Why food you may ask? Well, think about it. We spend a lot of time in our life eating; therefore, the chances are huge that food is associated with a happy memory: summer days at the pool with your cousins? There were probably popsicles there. Hanging out with friends in college? Most likely those hangouts included pizza breaks in between studying. Trick-or-treating around the neighborhood? You bet there was candy that night.
Since it can be challenging to recreate the actual event that brought happiness, we try to mimic what we can from it. Often times, the easiest part is the food component. You probably can’t fly back to Paris every time you feel nostalgic about that summer in France, but you can reminisce about the Musée d’Orsay as you munch on a macaron at your kitchen counter.
In nutshell, “it tastes good” is just another way to say “this food makes me feel good” and when we want to feel good, we will not stop until we find a way. Next time, you decipher something on your plate tastes good, ask yourself why. Figure out if you are using food to make yourself feel better.