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Eating pasta makes you happy scientifically proves its “smile effect”

24 April 20246 min reading

“According to the study, the results tell us that we are most emotionally activated when we eat pasta. The very act of eating and enjoying the dish is what triggers the most positive memories and emotions. The cognitive and emotional activation response to pasta is so strong, pleasant and engaging that it persists even after eating.”

Imagine the emotions triggered by a win at the Olympics, a goal in a national football match or a winning shot at Wimbledon. Our brain interprets all these in the same way as it does a forkful of spaghetti. In our hearts we’ve always known it: pasta makes us happy. Numerous nutritional studies have shown, for example, that thanks to the tryptophan it contains, a tasty plate of spaghetti stimulates endorphins and improves mood. What we didn’t know is that there’s also an emotional and neurophysiological mechanism underlying the mental and physical wellbeing we experience when we eat pasta. For the first time, it has been scientifically investigated and measured. It’s real explosion of happiness, equal to or even greater than the feeling generated by our favourite song or a victory by our team.

This was revealed in an Italian study conducted by IULM University of Milan. It’s the first time science has investigated the field of emotional gratification to understand how, why and how much happiness we experience when we eat a plate of pasta, by tracking what it triggers in our brains. To do this, researchers at IULM’s Behavior & Brain Lab used neuroscientific and brain tracking methods similar to those used in lie detectors (analysis of facial expressions, emotion-related brain activations, variation in heart rate and microsweating) on a sample of 40 individuals (20 women and 20 men) aged 25 to 55 and without food allergies or intolerances. The study was able to identify the type of emotional response and the relative degree of engagement when eating pasta, compared with some popular activities such as listening to music, or watching the Olympics, football or tennis.


HOW PASTA TRIGGERS HAPPINESS

The study confirms that eating pasta causes a positive emotional and cognitive state with results equal to, if not even greater than, those recorded in response to music and sport. The four parameters examined also indicate that the emotions experienced while tasting our favorite pasta are similar to those generated by recalling happy memories. Particularly memories linked to family.

In detail:

Memory Index: Eating pasta is the activity most likely to trigger cognitive memory processes. With a score of 0.87 on a scale of 0 to 1, the “pasta experience” scores twice as highly as music (0.43) and wins hands down over sport (0.02).

Engagement Index: Pasta (0.28) is the most engaging stimulus, compared to music (0.20) and sport (0.03).

Emotional Index: Pasta (0.36) is on par with music (0.35) and ahead of sport (0.22) in terms of its ability to trigger positive emotions.

Happiness Index: This gauges the level of happiness by reading facial expressions. Once again pasta ranks high, with a score of 76%, on a par with a favourite song (75%) and higher than a favourite sport (54%).

“SCIENCE AT THE SERVICE OF EMOTION TO PROVE THAT PASTA MEANS HAPPINESS”

So can we talk about the “smile” effect of pasta? “With this study, science is at the service of emotions to prove that pasta and happiness are one and the same,“ says Vincenzo Russo, professor of Consumer Psychology and Neuromarketing at IULM University, founder and coordinator of the IULM Neuromarketing Behavior & Brain Lab Research Centre. The results tell us that we are most emotionally activated when eating pasta. The very act of eating and enjoying the dish is what triggers the most positive memories and emotions. The cognitive and emotional activation response to pasta is so strong, pleasant and engaging that it persists even after eating.”

HAPPINESS IS THE FIRST WORD THAT COMES TO MIND IN ASSOCIATION WITH PASTA

In a survey of the eating habits of test participants, the highest scoring answer to the question “When do you eat pasta?” was “When I feel happy”, with 4.54 on a Lickert scale of 1 to 6. Its consumption is particularly linked to family time (5.10) and friendship (5.07).

What’s more, the majority of the sample (40%) identifies pasta as comfort food. When asked to the question “How happy does eating pasta make you?”, 76% of users answered “very.” In fact, it’s partly pasta’s ability to arouse positive emotions that allows this traditional food to remain a staple in our shopping baskets. And to the question “How happy does eating pasta make you?”, 76% of users answered “very.”

In fact, it’s partly pasta’s ability to arouse positive emotions that allows this traditional food to remain a staple in our shopping carts.

 “PASTA IS THE FOOD WITH THE BEST HAPPINESS/PRICE RATIO”

“We’ve always known that a delicious plate of pasta makes people happy, but we didn’t know why or to what extent” says Carl Zuanelli, president of IPO pasta makers. Now comes confirmation from this IULM research, 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 into everyone’s homes really is a source of satisfaction and pride.”

HOW NEUROSCIENCE DISCOVERED WHAT MAKES US HAPPIEST

The study was conducted by means of four tools: neuroanalysis (which assesses emotional-cognitive activation states during the chosen stimulus through indicators related to mnestic function and “engagement”); bioanalysis (which analyses the level of physiological and emotional activation to stimuli in terms of heartbeat and micro-sweating); FaceReader (which uses “face coding” to analyse changes in facial micro-expressions in response to a stimulus). and a questionnaire to explore participants’ rational experience and compare it with the neurophysiological data. Higher values in the indicators reveal a higher state of emotional activation and potential engagement with stimuli.

At the screening stage, each subject was interviewed about their pre-test emotional state (as a benchmark before the stimuli) and their personal tastes and consumption habits in pasta, music, and sports in order to identify their preferred stimulus. This was accompanied by a 12-part emotional self-assessment questionnaire and self-reporting using an iconographic technique (SAM – Self Assessment Manikin). Each participant was subjected to three different stimuli: four samples of pasta (penne with ragù, tomato, pesto and olive oil), three songs (their favourite song, one by Blur and one by Sia), and three sports (football, with highlights of the Italian victory at Euro 2020; swimming, with Gregorio Paltrinieri’s Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016; and tennis, with Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal’s winning shots at Wimbledon). Finally, happy thinking was added to these three macro-categories: each participant thought for 15 seconds about what made them particularly happy. At the end of the survey, physiological, emotional and cognitive activation related to this final step of happy thinking was compared with the preferred stimuli in the categories of “pasta,” “music” and “sport.” The test ended with free association of words to describe the experience in terms of emotions.

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