Season’s Eatings: The science behind seasonal cravings

Clockwise from top left: Vegetables at Heirloom // Photo by Dan Murphy; Seafood feast made by Billy Tserenbat and Zach Schugel // Photo by Wing Ta; Pumpkin pie at Birchwood Cafe // Photo by Kevin Kramer; Gavin Kaysen's cassoulet // Photo by Matt Lien

Clockwise from top left: Vegetables at Heirloom // Photo by Dan Murphy; Seafood feast made by Billy Tserenbat and Zach Schugel // Photo by Wing Ta; Pumpkin pie at Birchwood Cafe // Photo by Kevin Kramer; Gavin Kaysen’s cassoulet // Photo by Matt Lien

Ever done a happy dance in front of a shelf of Oktoberfest or crate of Honeycrisp apples in fall? Or sighed with glee as you’ve sunk your teeth into fresh, buttery corn on the cob in the summer? We’ve talked to a few Midwest food scientists to get to the bottom of what’s behind our seasonal cravings.

University of Minnesota dietician and nutritional anthropologist Chery Smith has dedicated her career to exploring how environment, culture, and demographics impact what people eat. While the factors are many, she says, humans’ diet has always—at its most basic level—been driven by availability.

“We’re omnivores—people can adapt to almost any environment they live in. But what’s on hand? What’s here, now?” summarizes Smith, simply. “People have always eaten regional foods—the things that grow in the area—long before we ever had transportation that allowed California strawberries to be at our doorstep in Minnesota.”

Climate plays a profound role in our diet “especially in Minnesota and other cold places where nothing grows in the winter,” Smith says. Years ago, winter in the Midwest meant relying on preserved foods, potatoes, and root vegetables from the cellar to make simple, sustaining dishes. The humble hotdish is a familiar vestige of years when, during the colder months, people needed a cheap and palatable way to eat preserved vegetables and frozen meat.

But Smith notes that it’s not just about the availability or scarcity of certain ingredients. Inuit people, for example, eat fatty mammals like seals and whales to withstand prolonged, extreme cold.”Biologically speaking, people who live in the north traditionally do better if they gain a little weight in the cold season. The extra fat on the body is adaptive because it insulates the body in cold climates.”

Summit Union Series Imperial Russian Stout // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg, The Growler

Summit Union Series Imperial Russian Stout // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg, The Growler

Devin Peterson has spent a significant amount of time in Minnesota, earning a Ph.D. from the U in 2001 and later serving as a professor there. Now he’s professor of food science and technology—and founder and director of the Flavor Research and Education Center—at the Ohio State University, where he specializes in flavor chemistry and food supply sustainability.

Peterson says that what we eat is much more behaviorally and environmentally influenced than anything else. “In a First World nation, we don’t eat for nutrients, but largely for pleasure,” he says. “We eat things we like.” In winter, he says, that might mean seeking out dishes like soups or stews, or by extension high alcohol beer styles like imperial stouts and barleywines, that will warm the body and are pleasant to eat and drink. The reason we eat more tomatoes in summer is because produce simply tastes best at its peak, and despite our ever-improving transportation and technology, fruit brought 2,000 miles is never going to taste as good as what we’ve just plucked ourselves.

“We like to have variation, and we like to enjoy the moment,” says Peterson. There isn’t data out there suggesting that the body has different, definitive nutritional needs at different times of the year that impact food choice, he says. But in his research on how people make eating decisions, he’s found that flavor, cost, and availability top the list of factors influencing whether they buy, say, boxed cheese product or fine Gouda, plantains or persimmons. For people in food secure areas, health and nutrition just don’t play a significant role in those choices.

He explains that humans do, however, have what’s called a “reward complex” where they associate certain foods and flavors with strong emotions and memories. “Did I have a good experience last time I ate this? Do I associate it with a family tragedy? We have very emotional food associations,” he says.

“Food has become much more readily available, but we still eat things that are traditional to us, that bring up all those memories and connections.”

– Chery F. Smith, Ph.D.

“There are some biological reasons to why cravings may happen—certain chemical releases in brain—but they have much more to do with what someone grew up on,” Smith agrees. “People hold fast to food traditions. Fish is huge among Norwegians, Scandinavians, Swedes. They loved to come to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and they brought their lutefisk along with them and eat it today out of tradition. […] Food has become much more readily available, but we still eat things that are traditional to us, that bring up all those memories and connections.”

In essence, if you crave stew in winter, you probably have good memories of eating stew in winter with your family, and your parents probably have similar memories with their parents before them. The seasonality of that craving then is merely a vestigial feature of a time when that stew was once made out of necessity in winter, using the only ingredients available—those stored in the root cellar.

Even though we have strong connections to our own traditional foods, what we eat is also influenced by the traditions of other cultures in our region. Minnesota’s cultural makeup has shifted through the years with the influx of immigrants from Finland, Sweden, and Germany, and later Somalia and Laos, and the foods from these countries have woven their way into our own traditions.

This cultural crossover can occur in subtle or more direct ways. “People have always traded longer-lasting foods, like jerky. They’d take food to other places, and that’s how they learned new flavors. It still happens today,” she says, noting that more daring people might readily try new types of produce or ethnic dishes they’ve never tried before. If they like it, they’ll share it with friends and family, and who knows—maybe soon they’ll be trading that winter stew for a bowl of bibimbap and kimchi.