Food plays many roles in people's lives. From the range of ingredients available in our shops to the number of dining options we have nowadays, it is clear that most of us no longer just eat to live. We eat to satisfy our hunger and nourish our bodies, yes, but the food on our plates has now taken on a higher role.
We ask a lot of our food. It has to give us pleasure, entertain us with its creativity, and stimulate discussion about its provenance. We employ it as a tool for confirming our status or impressing other people, and we use it as an emotional crutch at times when we are feeling low. No wonder we are disappointed when we get a bad meal.
The multi-sensory experience of consuming food can drive powerful emotional responses in most people. Happy memories of travels to exotic places can come flooding back at the faintest aroma of lemongrass. The taste and crunch of popping candy may take you back to long and lazy school holidays. A yellow lake of Birds custard may remind you of the stodgy puddings you devoured when you stayed with your favourite Granny. These were happy times, and it’s no wonder we try and access the warm feelings associated with them by trying to recreate the tastes, colours, sounds, and smells of the food we had at the time. This is the essence of comfort food, the search for emotional wellbeing through eating.
In general, society seems quite carefree about the idea of comfort food. We lap up the numerous books and TV programmes that are made about it without too much thought. However, while we dribble over images of sticky toffee pudding, mac and cheese, and the other carb and sugar-heavy concoctions that tend to epitomise comfort food, shouldn’t we really be questioning whether nutritionally poor food should be sold to the public as an easy remedy for melancholy or moments of discomfort. Turning to a bar of chocolate for a quick pick-me-up every now and again is fine, but what happens when those moments of discomfort turn to prolonged periods of unhappiness or depression and systematic comfort eating replaces more sensible solutions such as psychotherapy or carefully prescribed drugs .
According to a survey taken during the recession, three quarters of consumers (77%) admit that they have upped their food intake since the recession began, while four in ten reveal that they have put on an average of six pounds in the last six months. Healthy eating has also been cast aside by a third of shoppers (33%) who say that despite rising costs, food is proving to be their only comfort.
Society now stigmatizes the use of drugs, alcohol and nicotine because we have come to accept the long term effects these have on our health. As such, although many people also turn to a drink or a cigarette for comfort, it would be unthinkable for this to be depicted in an aspirational way in advertising or the wider media. Food companies on the other hand, are free to suggest how their unhealthy and addictive products can bring comfort to the consumer, despite global recognition that obesity and its associated diseases now represent the biggest threat to human health.
KFC’s latest UK TV campaign has recently hit our screens and the fried chicken giant is aiming to position its buckets of chicken as a way of creating moments of comfort at the heart of family life. In the ad we see a foster child, encouraged to relax into life with his new family around a dinner of takeaway KFC fried chicken. We see him grow into a young man, passing through life’s milestones – the first kiss, the university degree, until he becomes a parent himself. In the end, the ad goes full circle with the original foster child, now grown up, beckoning another hesitant (possibly new foster) child over to the dinner table, where once again, it's fried chicken time. Everything’s going to be ok, because on the table, there’s KFC.
What is the ad trying to tell us? That white middle class families eat KFC? That fried chicken can ease uncomfortable situations? That giving your children fast food for dinner is something that intelligent (he has a degree), responsible parents (actually the pinnacle of selfless parenting – foster parents) do, so it must be ok, right? It’s trying to tell us all of the above, but along with that it’s trying to tell us that we can trust KFC, that KFC cares, and the act of feeding our families with KFC will itself bring us some kind of altruistic comfort, just as eating a bucket of drumsticks will bring comfort to our angst-ridden children.
The haters say it's exploitative. Those who love the ad are moved to tears and celebrate how it portrays fostering in such a positive light. In the end though, both sides need to remember that this is an ad for chicken, not fostering and it's the underlying message that fried chicken offers comfort to families during those difficult moments in life that should be debated, not whether the ad reflects the true experience of being a fostered or adopted child.
Of course, everyone can see through this nonsense, can’t they? Fried chicken can’t really cure us of our social awkwardness, illness, guilt, heartbreak or whatever else makes us uncomfortable. No matter how KFC tries to imply it is a caring company by aligning itself with fostering, we all know that junk food is bad for you and that the chickens used by KFC are bred, kept and slaughtered in horrific conditions. We should feel uncomfortable about this, but then we will most likely crave more fried chicken to feel better about it.
The question is, do we actually feel better after eating comfort food because of how it affects our brain chemistry, or do we feel better because ads like KFC's tell us so. Have we been conditioned to think certain foods have a positive effect on our moods. Is there a dangerous placebo effect at work here?
Last year, newspapers featured stories of a 26year Chinese woman who spent a week in KFC after being dumped by her boyfriend.
“Lovesick Tan Shen, 26, from Chengdu, in China’s southwest Sichuan Province, went to the fast food chain in search of some comfort food to get over the break-up.
But seven days later Tan was still ordering chicken wings with a side of extra large fries at the KFC near a train station by her home."
I don’t want to be a preachy killjoy here and come over all righteous about how awful fast food is or how fat and sugar in combination are the devil’s work. Truth be told, I am partial to a Big Mac from time to time myself. I guess I am just concerned by how easily we throw around the term ‘comfort food’ as a euphemism for nutritionally poor, fattening food and it is this terminology that I would like to see changed, rather than the food itself.
We have to face up to the fact that modern life, with all its mod cons and supposed creature comforts, generates regular occurrences of emotional discomfort in most people. We’re stressed out by the pace of life, we’re diagnosed with new conditions and syndromes all the time, and we’re battling through the minefields of our relationships at work and at home. The need for comfort to redress the balance is omnipresent, and the availability of fast food to provide that comfort often makes it the easiest option. The problem is if we keep choosing the easy option then the obesity problem will only get worse.
We need to shatter this media-created illusion of comfort food for the sake of our children. By applying the label we are conditioning them to believe that food can elevate their moods, and we are effectively frog marching them towards eating disorders when they reach puberty, a time when their need for emotional comfort is at its highest.
So let's throw away the idea of eating for comfort, and find other ways to lift our spirits when the going gets tough.