Feel Good Food

8th October 2010

It's official… Toast has been scientifically proven to be the UK's favourite ‘feel good’ food – and Britain's most loved food aroma. Professor Tim Jacob, of the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University, has discovered that the smell of toast triggers memories of happiness.

Jill Glenn finds out more…

With over two million students heading off to university this autumn on tight budgets and – if the rumours are true – armed with minimum culinary skills, toast will become a food staple for many. Far from deprivation, however, it should evoke feelings of great comfort, with over 42% of students being reminded of home just by the very smell of toast.

A recent survey by the Flour Advisory Bureau (www.fabflour.co.uk) found that we are a nation of bread-heads – with over 99% of us claiming that we simply love toast. It’s all to do with the 'Proust Effect’, where odour unlocks memories…

Professor Jacob rationalises that because most families eat toast for breakfast, its distinctive smell delivers an instant feel good factor by evoking warm, comforting childhood memories. It is, he says, entirely conceivable that students can sniff their way back to their younger days as the aroma of lightly burning bread drifts through canteens and kitchens.

Warm toast may be the epitome of comfort eating, but it also features in a healthy balanced diet too. Nutritionist Fiona Hunter explains, "As well as being a source of comfort, toast/bread is also one of the nation's main sources of fibre: four medium slices of wholemeal bread provides 42% of the daily recommended amount of fibre.”

Even white bread is fortified with vitamins and minerals, and has a useful serving of calcium. Those students will be eating healthily whether they like it or not! Fiona continues, “Adding a little spice and being creative means that students can create a menu of quick, easy, nutritious meals with one loaf of bread…"

The survey also revealed the toppings that Britain loves to put on its toast – and all evidence suggests that a creative hand has definitely been at work here… Think baked beans with curry paste; or bacon and peanut butter; or cheese and banana; or jam and egg. Or don’t think about them, especially if you’ve not yet eaten.

Instead, rejoice in the fact that if you're partial to a slice of delicious piping hot toast with nothing other than butter or margarine, you're in good company: nearly two thirds of us enjoy our toast this way. (And, curiously, a slice of thick, white bread is still the benchmark for toast lovers: only 21% of men and 18% of women preferred brown to white).

The nation's top ten toppings were, in order, butter/margarine; cheese; egg; jam; marmalade; baked beans; marmite; bacon; peanut butter and honey. It strikes me that most of those have pretty strong childhood associations too, reinforcing the overall emotional appeal. As Professor Jacob observes, "Toast is used as a treat and to cheer us up… Psychologically, a process of conditioned association occurs to link toast, and the smell and flavour of toast, with key moments in our lives – family moments."

The very idea is wonderfully evoked in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows: "… a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one's ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender, of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries."

Food writer Rose Prince is clearly a fan, too. "Putting things on toast is genius,” she says, in The New English Kitchen. “Ordinary, everyday items of food are greatly elevated by their toasted mattress of bread."

Quite what she or Kenneth Grahame would make of beans and curry paste is anyone’s guess…

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