Imagine the excitement of witnessing an Olympic victory, a goal from your national team, a winning shot at Wimbledon. These are all stimuli that our brain reads like a bite into a bowl of spaghetti. We have always known, in our hearts, that pasta makes people happy. Numerous nutritional studies have shown, for example, that thanks to the intake of tryptophan, a good spaghetti dish stimulates endorphins and a good mood.
We did not know, though, that there is also an emotional and neurophysiological mechanism at the basis of the psychophysical well-being that is felt by eating a plate of pasta, which has been scientifically investigated and measured for the first time. A real explosion of happiness, equal to or even more significant than the emotion aroused by our favorite song or a goal from our favorite team.
This is revealed by an Italian study, of the “Behavior & Brain Lab” of the Free University of Languages and Communication IULM, created for the Italian pasta makers of Unione Italiana Food. It is the first time that scientific research has investigated the emotional sphere of gratification to understand how, how much, and why we are happy when we eat a plate of pasta, tracing what “turns on” in our brain a good fork of spaghetti.
To do this, researchers used neuroscientific and brain tracking methodologies similar to those used for lie detectors (analysis of facial expressions, emotional brain activations, heart rate variation, and micro perspiration) on a sample of 40 subjects (20 women and 20 men) between 25 and 55 years of age and without food allergies or intolerances. The study thus identified the type of emotional reaction and the relative degree of involvement while tasting a plate of pasta, in comparison to some favorite activities such as listening to music or watching the Olympics, a football, or a tennis match.
BETWEEN MEMORY AND EMOTIONAL INVOLVEMENT: HERE IS HOW PASTA TURNS HAPPINESS ON
The study confirms that eating pasta causes a positive emotional-cognitive state with the same results, if not even higher, than those recorded with music and sports. The four parameters of analysis examined, also tell us that the emotional experience of tasting one’s favorite pasta is equal to that generated by the re-enactment of happy memories. Especially those related to the family.
- Memorization Index: with a score of 0.87 on a scale from 0 to 1, the “pasta experience” beats music (0.43) and sports (0.02) in activating cognitive memory processes. This shows how pasta is the activity most linked to the activation of mnestic processes.
- Engagement Index: pasta is the most addictive stimulus (0.28) compared to music (0.20) and sports (0.03).
- Emotional Index: pasta (0.36) is paired with music (0.35) and wins over sports (0.22) for the best ability to cause positive emotions.
- Happiness Index: this is an indicator of happiness experienced by the subject and manifested at the level of facial expressions. Once again pasta is positioned with 76% on the same level as one’s favorite song (75%) and, at a higher level, than one’s favorite sport (54%).
IULM’S STUDY SAYS: “SCIENCE IS AT EMOTIONS’ SERVICE TO PROVE THAT PASTA IS SYNONYMOUS WITH HAPPINESS” –
Can we speak, therefore, of the “smile” effect of pasta?
“Through this study, science has put itself at the service of emotions to certify that pasta and happiness are one – says Vincenzo Russo, Professor of Consumer Psychology and Neuromarketing at IULM University, Founder and Coordinator of the Neuromarketing Behavior & Brain Lab IULM – The results tell us that it is precisely when we eat pasta that we are most emotionally active. It is, therefore, the real act of tasting and savoring the dish in its full flavor to stimulate the most positive memories and emotions. This cognitive and emotional activation determined by the taste of pasta is so strong, pleasant and engaging to persist even moments after eating“.
HAPPINESS IS THE FIRST WORD THAT COMES TO MIND ASSOCIATED TO PASTA
Investigating the consumption habits of the participants in the test, to the question “when do you eat pasta?“, the answer that generated a higher score is “when I feel happy” with 4.54 on a Lickert scale from 1 to 6. Its consumption is related to moments of family sharing (5.10) and friendship (5.07).
Moreover, most of the sample (40%) identifies pasta as a comfort food. Asked about the three words to be associated with pasta, immediately after the specific references to taste and identity (“Italy”, “good”) the only emotion immediately associated with it is happiness. And to the question “how happy does eating pasta make you?” 76% of users responded: “a lot“.
In short, if a traditional food like pasta can remain the protagonist of the shopping cart, it is also because of its ability to evoke a positive emotional charge. This is confirmed by the data of Unione Italiana Food: pasta is consumed by almost all Italians (99%), on average about 5 times a week, for a total of 23 kg per capita per year which makes them the largest consumers in the world.
FELICETTI: “PASTA IS FOOD WITH THE BEST HAPPINESS/PRICE RATIO”
“We have always known that a good plate of pasta makes people happy, but we did not know why and to what extent – says Riccardo Felicetti, president of the Italian pasta makers of Unione Italiana Food – Now, the official confirmation comes from this research that we commissioned from IULM, in which pasta is chosen as the food of happiness, or as we pasta makers like to say, with the best happiness/price ratio. And bringing a little ‘happiness in Italians homes, at a time like this, for us “pastai” is really a source of satisfaction and pride“.
According to the World Happiness Report 2022, which every year ranks the countries in which people feel happiest, Italy is in 31st place (last year it was in the 25th), in a ranking that includes 146 countries. Although the report speaks of a good level of resilience in Italy, it is young people who complain of less life satisfaction.
And it’s not just a socio-economic issue. Another interesting study, signed by the University of Warwick, Glasgow and the Alan Turing Institute in London, tells us that today in Italy we are at the historical lows of happiness even if we look at the last 200 years of world history. It is no coincidence that on social channels photos and videos that stage, without filters, positive feelings are the most successful.
“It is in a context like this that people need to celebrate the happiness that sometimes resides in small things, like enjoying their favorite pasta dish” concludes Felicetti.
THE NUTRITIONIST PIRETTA: “CARBOHYDRATES ALSO PLAY THEIR PART IN HAPPINESS”
From the sixties to today, a vast scientific literature, including three studies published in The Lancet Public Health, has confirmed that pasta, rich in tryptophan and B vitamins, it is an ally of good mood at a nutritional level.
“Carbohydrates are molecules made of sugar, so the sugar taken from our intestines and arrived at the brain determines this feeling of well-being – says Prof. Piretta, gastroenterologist and professor of the University Campus Bio-Medico in Rome – In the intestinal tract there are tastes receptors that also act on the central nervous system through hormonal and neuro-hormonal mechanisms that give us a memory of sugar intake.
When you eat carbohydrates then you stimulate endorphins that convey a feeling of well-being. Finally, complex carbohydrates such as pasta, ensure a sufficient intake of tryptophan, the precursor amino acid of serotonin, which regulates the mood. And the vitamins of group B, present in greater quantities in the whole pasta, imply muscle relaxation; especially the B1, fundamental for the central nervous system, stimulates the production of serotonin“.