The phrase "comfort food" has traditionally been more marketing than anything else, used to describe foods or menus that take us back to childhood or make us feel warm and cozy on a cold day. Mac 'n' cheese and fried chicken tend to be involved. But scientists looking at the effects of different foods and food flavors on mood have recently found evidence that certain flavors are truly comforting.
At the national meeting of the American Chemical Society last month, Karina Martinez-Mayorga, Ph.D., presented the latest findings from her ongoing study of the effect of various food flavors on mood. It turns out that molecules in chocolate, a variety of berries and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids positively affect mood. Moreover, Martinez-Mayorga and her team have found that the chemical components of these food flavors are structurally similar to valproic acid, the primary ingredient in several pharmaceutical mood stabilizers, including Depakene, Depakote and Stavzor.
To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers screened the chemical structures of over 1,700 food flavor ingredients for similarities to approved antidepressants, marketed drugs and other products with reported antidepressant activity. So far the most compelling link has been to valproic acid, but it's entirely possible that these and other foods and food flavors have mood-boosting or antidepressant capabilities.
“The large body of evidence that chemicals in chocolate, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, teas and certain foods could well be mood-enhancers encourages the search for other mood modulators in food,” Martinez-Mayorga told me in an email.
Martinez-Mayorga's research is supported in part by a food flavor company, France-based Robertet Flavors, Inc. The scientist says food industry companies are joining pharmaceutical companies in the quest for natural mood boosters. While pharmaceutical companies search for potent antidepressants, food companies would be happy to promote food products as having verifiable mood-stabilizing, calming, or memory-boosting effects.
"Our primary interest is in flavors for enhancing mood in normal, healthy people during ‘down times,' not clinical depression," Martinez-Mayorga said.
Of course, no one is suggesting that a snack of chocolate and blueberries could replace medication for, say, bipolar disorder. But Martinez-Mayorga says mood-lifting chemicals from foods, in combination with other positive environmental factors (healthy sleep patterns, for example) could deliver a quantifiable mood boost.
Eventually, Martinez-Mayorga said, we could even see dietary recommendations shift to include foods with positive psychological benefits. With the exceptions of chocolate and tea, that wouldn't necessarily introduce any new foods to the recommendations made by most nutritionists. Unfortunately, mac 'n' cheese and fried chicken wouldn't make the cut.
Even more unfortunate, more scientific evidence or formal dietary recommendations won't necessarily make these foods—fresh berries, fish, and other omega 3-rich foods—any more accessible to the general public. The same people who struggle to get access to fresh produce and healthy proteins to meet their physical nutritional requirements would struggle to get enough mood-boosting foods as well.