Many of us here at FoodFacts.com have clear memories of eating a pint of Haagen Daz after a bad breakup. We hear stories from others about cookies, cake and candy after a particularly bad day at the office or an upsetting event with a friend or family member. Of course, we all hear the platitudes about being stronger than that craving. But we all know that in certain situations we could swear that the bad food we reached for during any emotional upheaval actually made us feel better – at least until the next day.
Research by Cornell food scientists reveals how a person’s emotional state — particularly in the competitive, wide world of sports — affects the perception of taste. In particular, people in negative emotional states tend to crave sweets more than those in a positive frame of mind.
“We determined how emotions arising from the outcome of college hockey games influenced the perception of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (savory) taste, … in addition to hedonic responses ¬- or how much they liked or disliked the foods,” said Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Dando, who with Corinna Noel, a doctoral student in food science, published “The Effect of Emotional State on Taste Perception” in the journal Appetite, June 27.
“Emotional manipulations in the form of pleasantly or unpleasantly perceived real-life events can influence the perception of taste, driving the acceptability of foods,” said Dando. “These results imply that such modulation of taste perception could promote emotional eating in times of negative emotion.”
The study shows that emotions experienced in everyday life can alter the hedonic experience of less-palatable food, implying a link to emotional eating, according to the researchers. Dando explained, “In times of negative affect, foods of a less pleasurable nature become even more unappealing to taste, as more hedonically pleasing foods remain pleasurable.
“This is why when the team wins, we’re okay with our regular routine foods, but when they lose, we’ll be reaching for the ice cream.”
So, it really is all in our head … or at least in our taste buds. We’re not making it up or giving in to a craving or using an event as an excuse to eat. We’re physically drawn to the food when we’re in a negative frame of mind. It would be great for all of us if the flavor of carrots, for instance, was suddenly tremendously appealing after a particularly bad day at work. It doesn’t seem to work that way though. Maybe we can try a replacement strategy next time … when our brain is saying ice cream, we can try reaching for Greek yogurt instead.