Psychology of Banana Bread | Otago Daily Times News Online
During the first pandemic lockdown in early 2020, social media was flooded with photos of homemade banana bread as people turned to baking instead of socializing. Now that many places are reintroducing restrictions as the number of Covid-19 cases rises again, there’s a good chance we could see a revival of the home cooking trend, not least because the first craze for banana bread had strong psychological roots.
Our food preferences, acceptance and consumption are shaped by family and friends, advertising, celebrity trends and, nowadays, social media influencers. It is wise to be guided by the knowledge of others when mistakes have life-threatening consequences. This “social learning” prevents the consumption of spoiled or toxic food.
Our modeling of other people’s behavior is especially strong when we follow someone we admire, such as those we follow on social media. And we often turn to modeling to reduce the uncertainty, which was rampant during the disruption of the first lockdown thanks to a lack of knowledge about the coronavirus.
But why banana bread? Our brains evolved when scarcity was common. Sources of sugar were subject to seasonal availability and methods of storing perishable fats were limited. Opportunistically gorging on these biologically important energy sources when they were available was convenient.
The crucial nature of food for our survival makes it inherently rewarding. Even the sight or smell of food triggers a response in the brain’s reward system. However, not all foods are created equal, with the strongest hedonic response for the combination of sugar and fat.
We have an innate preference for sweet foods, which elicit a reaction as powerful as that triggered by cocaine. Satiety does little to diminish the motivation for sweetness – we can be full after a big meal and still have room for dessert.
As good as the real thing
But the banana bread was in our social media feed, not in front of us. Getting as much information as possible about food before we put it in our mouths is key to protecting us from harm. We use visual and olfactory information and social influence as cues of food availability and value, thereby increasing our motivation to eat.
This is disproportionately the case for appetizing foods, those tempting foods filled with carbohydrates, fats and salt. Their images can trigger food cravings, salivation, and digestive responses.
The way we learn to associate a stimulus (banana bread) with its outcome (pleasure or satiety) means that we actually receive the reward response, a puff of dopamine, in anticipation from sensory cues, rather than during consumption. In our modern environment, these cues, such as Instagram posts, could drive our food-seeking behavior even more strongly than hunger cues.
The act of cooking could be particularly powerful because our olfactory cortex is strongly interconnected with regions processing emotion (amygdala) and memory (hippocampal cortex). Smell can evoke vivid autobiographical memories and the emotions associated with them. It can also lower heart rate, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve psychological and immune function.
Just as a madeleine led the author Marcel Proust to relive a childhood memory in his autobiographical novel Dans Looking for lost time, positive childhood memories of baking might be evoked by the smell of banana bread in the oven. That feeling of comfort or happiness might be just what we needed during lockdown, especially for those who aren’t part of the family.
The emotional turbulence of confinement is also influential. Stress and low moods can trigger cravings, especially for carbs and high-fat “comfort” foods.
Stressors increase the consumption of comfort foods and increase the motivational value of these foods, making us want them more.
Stress increases levels of the hormone cortisol, increasing appetite and (comforting) food seeking behavior by reducing the effects of leptin, a hormone signaling fullness.
The lockdown has also affected people’s sleep, leading to reports of vivid and bizarre dreams and increased daytime sleep. Sleep has a considerable influence on appetite and eating behavior. Like stress, sleep deprivation is associated with palatable food cravings.
Daytime sleep is particularly destructive because it reduces melatonin secretion. We secrete melatonin when it starts to get dark, to aid sleep and increase leptin sensitivity. Lower levels of leptin lead to higher levels of insulin and cortisol (our old friend the stress hormone), increasing hunger and foraging.
So if you’re punishing yourself for snacking out of boredom, those extra pounds might not indicate a lack of self-control. A combination of evolutionary, social, and motivational forces shape how our brain uses sensory cues indicating food availability to control our appetite and eating behavior.
When we’re tired, stressed, or unsure, Instagram’s banana bread images, signaling the heady combination of sugar and fat, might be just the cue we need to get us off the couch and into the kitchen. Now where did I put my spatula?
– The conversation
– Stephanie Baines is Associate Professor of Psychology, Bangor University
Here’s a banana bread recipe from our Ask the Chef archives at Vudu Cafe in Queenstown.
250g of butter
6 bananas (as ripe as possible)
3 ½ cups flour
3 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
⅓ cup shredded coconut
2 cups of sugar
Preheat the oven to 160°C.
Grease and line two cake molds (10 cm by 25 cm).
Put all the dry ingredients in a large bowl.
Soften the butter in a saucepan, add the mashed banana and continue to melt the butter.
Beat the eggs one by one into the slightly cooled banana mixture.
Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients and mix gently.
Pour into prepared loaf pans.
Bake for about 50-55min or until a knife comes out clean.
Serve hot with butter.