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Researchers Say You Might Feel Happier About Ice Cream, but You'll Remember Broccoli Better

Oct. 30, 2008 -- The mere thought of some foods may make you happy, but it's the healthy foods that you remember fastest.

That's according to a new study released this week in Chicago at the American Dietetic Association's annual meeting.

The study comes from David Vanata, PhD, RD, LD, associate professor in the foods and nutrition department at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio.

Vanata gave 240 young adults a list of 62 foods and asked them to rank each food on happiness, excitability, pleasantness, and comfort. These were snap judgments -- no hemming and hawing.

The results:

  • Highest happiness scores: ice cream, chocolate, cake, grapes, and pizza
  • Lowest happiness scores: tofu, soy, avocado, bologna, and salmon
  • Highest pleasantness and excitability scores: Similar to the happiness list, but cookies also ranked high
  • Lowest pleasantness and excitability scores: Similar to the happiness list, but cauliflower joined the list
  • Highest comfort scores: chocolate, ice cream, grapes, spaghetti, macaroni, apple, and orange

Overall, the top-ranked foods for emotional response -- combining the happiness, excitability, pleasantness, and comfort scores -- were ice cream, chocolate, and cookies. Tofu, soy, and avocado had the lowest scores.

Participants also rated each food's healthiness.

"Healthiness scores indicated that the lowest ranked foods primarily consisted of snack food items (Twinkie, Doritos, Oreos, Cheetos, soda, and taffy), where the highest were certain fruits and vegetables (broccoli, apple, orange, carrots, grapes, and peach)," the study states.

Food Memories

Vanata gave participants a pop quiz after they finished ranking the foods. The task: Flip the page over and quickly write down as many of the listed foods as they could remember.

Participants recalled significantly more of the healthy foods than the unhealthy foods. But they weren't particularly likely to recall the foods with high emotional scores, either in terms of the foods' overall emotional response or happiness, excitability, pleasantness, and comfort alone.

"Emotional words were not recalled more than nonemotional words," and "healthy foods were recalled over unhealthy foods," Vanata tells WebMD.

It's not clear why healthy foods were more memorable and emotional foods weren't. In his paper, Vanata calls for research on whether BMI (body mass index) or negative emotional reactions to foods affect memory.

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