I once roamed the basement of North Quad Residence Hall during a study break to search for a quick and filling vending machine snack. As I approached the machine hoping I wouldn’t be forced to settle for a bag of chips that was 75 percent air, I noticed a blue rectangular surprise in the left corner: a Rice Krispies treat. At only 160 calories, it proudly wore the MHealthy sticker on its front. I went for it without hesitation. Peeling back the wrapper, I exposed what I had been missing for so many years. The first bite was crispy, chewy and soft — just the way I remembered it. It transported me to a decade in the past, to the kitchen table of my childhood home where my mom taught me how to make these delicacies from scratch. It was the first recipe I committed to memory, and though it resulted in a messy cleanup, it became one of my favorite bonding experiences with my mother. But I didn’t realize how long it had been since I had enjoyed Kellogg’s greatest invention (sorry Nutri-Grain bars, it was a close call). I felt nostalgic immediately after that first bite, and it prompted me to clear the CVS shelves of their Rice Krispies inventory on my way home.
For some of us, it’s Rice Krispies treats. For others, it’s Smucker’s PB&J Uncrustables, Fruit Gushers or maybe even a traditional home-cooked meal. No matter the treat, many of us have strong emotional connections and memories tied to foods that have us longing for a simpler past. It’s a powerful, food-induced nostalgia. The etymology of “nostalgia” is complex, but today we understand it to be a yearning for yesterday. It allows us to travel back to specific times in our lives and sometimes even relive old feelings and emotions — like the way I felt in my mom’s kitchen all those years ago. By evoking these feelings and emotions, food acts as a medium for childhood recollections. But what is it about food that makes it so powerful? Why does eating certain foods resurface some of our most treasured memories?
The answer may be that food consumption involves memory-inducing cues that are extremely evocative, such as scents, tastes and textures. The general experience of eating is also significant to memory creation and collection as it is oftentimes tied to social activities and exchange which attaches a new layer of sentimentality to our favorite foods. The act of eating can definitely be private, but we all remember sharing food over the holidays with our loved ones and during the most social parts of our young lives, such as school lunches and summer camps. Those images suddenly come back when we revisit our favorite foods. And, from a more biological perspective, our brains are wired to form memories about what we eat. The part of our brain called the hippocampus, which is essential to the formation of long-term memories, is also home to receptors of hormones that regulate appetite, digestion and eating behavior.
Perceptions surrounding nostalgia are usually negative, portraying those caught in nostalgia as stuck in the past. But some studies challenge these perceptions and suggest that nostalgia can actually be beneficial. In fact, evoking feelings from the past can help buffer people from experiencing loneliness. Comfort food that reminds us of previous social ties can help deter feelings of isolation. Additionally, some researchers argue nostalgia contributes to feeling safe because foods that we’ve already consumed in the past can be associated with positive memories, which reduces risk-taking. If this is the case, it seems wise for food brands to play into this “positive nostalgia” in their advertisement techniques.
In 2017, Post Consumer Brands did just that by bringing Oreo O’s back into our lives. After a 10-year absence, the iconic cereal reminded us young adults of what it was like to eat cookies for breakfast. I remember walking through the cereal aisle at Kroger and reading, “the highly anticipated sweet return” on the front of the box, and though the cereal hadn’t crossed my mind for years, I was suddenly convinced the comeback was well overdue. While my matured palate no longer appreciates the grainy feeling that lingers after eating sugary cereal, it was definitely worth giving Oreo O’s another go.
We’ve grown out of our childhood habits to become hardworking college students. But that shouldn’t stop us from indulging in sugary snacks from time to time. Sometimes, all it takes is a Rice Krispies treat to send us back to our favorite moments. And thankfully, science supports our endeavors to reconnect with our past.