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What makes comfort food so comforting? And what does comfort food have to do with the barbecue?

The Science of Barbecue

What makes comfort food so comforting? And what does comfort food have to do with the barbecue?

It’s the middle of winter and there is no end in sight to the drifts of snow and freezing temperatures. While others are still sticking it out with their new year's resolutions, I am warming myself with comfort food (in moderation). However, what makes comfort food so comforting, and what does comfort food have to do with the barbecue? Comfort food means a lot of things to many people. In fact, as you read these words, I bet something delicious and specifically your own came to mind.

Comfort Food – Origin & Psychology

Coined in a Washington Post article in 1977, the term comfort food was related to the foods that people reach for when they need solace, connection, or to elevate their mood. Comfort foods are consumed to evoke a warm and cozy feeling of contentment in the person eating them. People are attracted to the associations they elicit. It can be a conditioned response to foods that parents or caregivers served in your youth. There is also a deep cultural component that makes it virtually impossible to separate food, especially things you find comforting, from emotions of any kind.

Delicious Ribs Are Comforting

Fatty Acids & The Olfactory Response

It’s not all psychological. There is an olfactory element to this science. Just smelling these foods can bring a pleasurable response – positive memories of places and events like family gatherings or parties.

Foods that are considered comforting generally tend to be high in fatty acids. Fatty acids are important to maintaining healthy cells, they have been proven to enhance mood and brain function, and have even shown minor antidepressant effects. There is an added bonus that they help you feel full in many situations. There’s a slight downside, can you see it? Obviously many comfort foods that are brimming with fatty acids will also, very likely, contain unhealthy amounts of carbohydrates, fats, and sugars. So while the benefits of a comfort food experience, when it comes to the sentimental side of things, are nice, it pays to enjoy these foods with a modicum of control.

Fatty acids are a component of healthy living, providing what cells metabolize as fuel. It is preferable to consume fatty acids that are short and medium-chain because they are metabolized in the liver and used for healthy energy production. Coconut oil is a prime example.

Comfort Food & Barbecue

Okay, so we have discussed the psychological and scientific end of comfort food, but what does it all have to do with barbecue? Comfort food will be different depending on the cultural background and experiences of every individual. However, many internationally agreed upon comfort foods have a few things in common. Umami, the Japanese word for savory yumminess, is a combination of elements of saltiness, meatiness, and earthiness. The Maillard Reaction; that roasty, toasty, brownness that results from cooking over temperatures of 300°F. And finally fat, which not only helps to create incredible fragrances in our favorite comfort foods but also provides an amazing mouth-feel, which is incredibly pleasurable when eating.

Bacon Sliders Are Comforting!

Grilled food fresh off the barbecue will have at least two of these comfort food characteristics, making your barbecue the ideal source when it comes to satisfying your comfort cravings. A brisket, burgers, roast meat, and pasta dishes are just a few of the savory comfort foods you can produce on the grill. If you have a sweet tooth, pies, cheesecakes, and quick breads are comfort foods that you will reach for.

Comfort Food & Your Health

In doing research for this article, there was a lot of research that could be taken negatively when it comes to eating comfort food. Most of these foods would be consumed on “special” occasions and are not something you should be eating every day per se. Like all things, it’s about moderation. Don’t deny yourself your comfort foods because they’re considered unhealthy, nor should you be consuming them all the time. However, a little bit, a healthy portion now and then, is certainly more than acceptable. You can also look for other, healthier ways to prepare these foods that make you feel good.

What makes comfort food so comforting to you? What barbecued meals do you make that are considered comfort foods? Reach out through our social channels like our Facebook page or Instagram account using the hashtag #BBQcomfortFood and #NapoleonGrill. Share photos and stories about your comfort foods.

Happy Grilling!