Why Does Food Bring Back Memories? Here’s the Science Behind It

Have you ever eaten one of your family's recipes and instantly hundreds of memories filled your mind?

If you answered yes, you are not the only one. My mother’s famous saying is “food is memories” and I believe that this is as true as it gets. Food is so important in Italian families, and it is more than solely feeding your body. Food is a social activity and has the ability to take you back years and years. In Italian families, the consumption of food always occurs around the dinner table surrounded by loved ones, laughter, and stories.

So why does that first bite or smell of polenta, risotto, or pasta e fagioli instantly bring back memories?

“Food memories are more sensory than other memories in that they involve really all five senses, so when you’re that thoroughly engaged with the stimulus it has a more powerful effect,” explains Susan Whitbourne, to HuffPost in a food memory article in 2017.  Unlike some memories that solely relate to sight, food relates to all of your senses.

Other scientists believe that the link between food and memories dates back to survival tactics called conditioned taste aversion. A 2018 study conducted by psychology professor Kathleen C. Chambers, revealed that “Conditioned taste aversion is a learned association between the taste of a particular food and illness such that the food is considered to be the cause of the illness.” 

In the past, our ancestors may have eaten certain foods and became ill from them. As a result, they remembered this experience and avoided the food in the future. This may explain why food and memory are so strongly related.

When considering childhood food memories, it is more than the taste of the food that we remember. We remember the setting we were in, the individuals we were surrounded by, and the emotions we felt. Food is a beautiful thing, and the memories that surround it are just as soul-stirring.


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