By Mike Pomranz
Updated April 06, 2015
Credit: © Sarah Lemoncelli

Ooey, gooey grilled cheese. A hot bowl of chicken noodle soup. A taste of these, and you can forget all your worries. But what exactly is comfort food? And what makes it so comforting?

Last week, The Atlantic took an extensive look at the concept, framing the discussion around a recent study published in the journal Appetite that discovered that some people find comfort foods more comforting than others, all depending on how strongly they build relationships with other people.

“When we think about something like comfort food, we tend to think about it as providing calories or warmth or a sense of well-being,” said Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New York, Buffalo, and one of the authors of the study. What we don’t think about is that comfort food also provides us with something social.

In two studies, her team found that people who form secure relationships and tend to view these relationships positively enjoyed comfort food more than people who formed weaker relationships. In the first study, participants were asked to describe a fight they had been in with someone close to them. After rehashing the incident, people who formed closer relationships found potato chips to be tastier than subjects who tended to have weaker relationships. In the second study, researchers found that people with strong emotional relationships were more likely to eat what they considered to be comfort foods when they were lonely.

Gabriel believes these findings indicated that comfort foods may be less about the food and more about social attachments. “I tend to think of it in terms of classical conditioning,” Gabriel told The Atlantic. “If you’re a small child and you get fed certain foods by your primary caregivers, then those foods begin to be associated with the feeling of being taken care of. And then when you get older, the food itself is enough to trigger that sense of belonging.”

Similar studies have shown similar results: A 2011 study showed people with stronger relationships found chicken soup more satisfying. Though another study last year called “The myth of comfort food,” claimed, not surprisingly, that comfort food is bupkis.

As is often the case, the jury is still out. Though if anyone out there is looking to conduct further research, I’m prepared to eat as much macaroni and cheese as you need me to—all in the name of science.