Filling the void: our difficult relationship with food
Do you reward yourself with a slice of cake for a job well done, or reach for the biscuit tin in stressful moments?
Your day has gone horribly wrong. There’s more bad news on the radio and it’s just started to hurl rain. You start to dream about dinner. Not a crisp green salad but a plate of buttery mash and a thick steak, with apple tart and cream to finish.
Comfort eating and what makes us do it is at the heart of new research in Univerity College Cork. Mice in the university’s laboratory may hold the key to understanding why we crave high fat, carbs, salt and sugary foods in times of stress. It’s timely research, especially in Ireland, when the urge for apple crumble as everything crumbles around us may have led us to comfort-eat our way through the recession.
The knowledge around emotional eating is growing. In a 2011 study published in the journal Neuroscience, a team led by UCC neuroscientist Prof John Cryan found that mice who ate more comfort foods reacted with less anxiety to stressful situations. At the heart of the research into what drives mice, and us, towards the comfort food is a hormone called ghrelin. This hormone, discovered by scientists in Japan in 1999, has been dubbed the “hunger hormone”.
“It is released from the stomach in anticipation of food and basically tells the brain and digestive systems to get ready for eating,” Prof Cryan explains.
In the past two years the UCC researchers, along with scientists in the US and Sweden, have zoned in on ghrelin and how it prompts those cravings for high-calorie palatable foods. Put simply, in response to stress the mice produce more ghrelin which prompts them to eat more comfort foods, over-riding normal appetite urges. “The role of chronic daily stress on how ghrelin signals to the brain is the subject of intense investigation at UCC and understanding these pathways may result in a better understanding of why we comfort eat and how to prevent it,” Cryan says.
The idea of emotional eating may explain how Irish food businesses are surviving such a difficult business climate. We may not be taking three holidays a year anymore but we’re not giving up those trips to Fallon & Byrne or Cork’s English Market. Dublin’s restaurant scene is booming. Despite years of austerity, consumers are buying more foods that are considered luxuries. Last year, sales of farmhouse cheese in Ireland rose by 43 per cent to create a €4 million domestic market.
Karen Liston of Listons on Dublin’s Camden Street has seen customers continue to treat themselves to good ingredients through the downturn.
“People of all ages are coming in looking for unusual spice mixes, like ras el hanout or baharat seven spice, or pomegranate molasses.” She puts some of this down to the Ottolenghi effect (the London-based chef) and believes that cookery programmes and books are “getting us excited about cooking and food”.
Along with the exotic requests, there has also been a noticeable shift towards Irish food among her customers. “They want to support local artisan producers. They are aware it’s supporting jobs in Ireland. Toonsbridge buffalo mozzarella is very popular, Gubbeen Smokehouse chorizo sausages; Le Levain and Tartine bakery are two amazing bakeries producing delicious bread.”
Liston has also noticed that her shoppers are more careful. “I particularly see it with the fresh veg, where people will buy one carrot or one onion or they want a small piece of cheese. People want to avoid waste. They’re shopping off lists and more often than not, they know what they want.”