The Taste of Comfort: Food for thought on how Americans eat to feel better.

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On a cold and rainy afternoon, you decide that a bowl of chicken soup would hit the spot. While eating, you smile as you recall a rainy day long ago when your mother made you the same kind of soup. Ever had a craving for a pint of double chocolate chip ice cream when you felt sad? A turkey sandwich when you felt happy? If so, then you're someone who has a comfort food, a specific food consumed under a specific situation to obtain psychological comfort.

At the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois, we study people's relationships with comfort foods to answer three questions: 1) What are comfort foods? 2) When do people eat comfort foods? and 3) How do we become attached to comfort foods?

In one study, we randomly selected and did in-depth phone interviews with 411 people (63 percent female) from across the United States. We asked them what their favorite comfort foods were, as well as open-ended questions about how those items became comfort foods. With the results, we developed a quantitative 20-minute phone survey and enlisted participation among a stratified sample of 1,005 other individuals. A third study involved in-depth laddering interviews of snack-food fanatics.

Sweet and Sour Tastes

Potato chips top the list of Americans' favorite comfort foods, followed by ice cream, cookies, and candy. Our instinctive craving for salty foods and sweet foods is well documented. What is most interesting about this list is that nearly 40 percent of comfort foods do not fall into the traditional category of processed snack foods. Instead, they can be classified as relatively natural, homemade, or as even "healthy" - that is, meats, main dishes, soups, vegetables, and so on. Indeed, this is consistent with the notion that one of the factors pulling us to certain foods is not just hedonistic taste but the psychological comfort these foods provide and what they represent. In effect, the popularity of these less glamorous and less indulgent foods lends credibility to the notion that comfort foods are distinct from "taste good" foods.

Do preferred comfort foods differ by gender? You bet. In the survey of 1,005 consumers, we asked those polled to agree or disagree on whether particular foods were comfort foods to them. Males and females recorded striking differences in their responses. For females, the top three comfort foods are ice cream (74 percent), chocolate (69 percent), and cookies (66 percent). All are sweets, and all are basically snack foods. Males said their top three comfort foods are ice cream (77 percent), soup (73 percent), and pizza or pasta (72 percent). With the exception of ice cream, males generally claim they receive more comfort from hot foods and from main meals than do females. This may tell us something about the way to a man's heart.

An analysis by age shows that people aged 18 to 34 prefer ice cream (77 percent) and cookies (70 percent), while those aged 35 to 54 prefer soup (68 percent) and pasta (67 percent). People over the age of 55 prefer soup (76 percent) and mashed potatoes (74 percent). Soup is the comfort food people rate as the most healthy, and the one that the greatest percentage of people say makes them feel good about themselves.

Preferences Based on Mood Swings

Many people assume comfort foods are eaten when a person is in a funk, depressed, bored, or lonely. The opposite is true. People are more apt to seek out comfort foods when they're jubilant (86 percent) or when they want to celebrate or reward themselves (74 percent) than when they've got the blues (39 percent), the blahs (52 percent), or are feeling kind of lonely (39 percent).

The types of comfort foods that entice a person also vary depending on mood. People in happy moods tend to prefer healthier foods such as pizza or steak (32 percent). Sad people reach for ice cream and cookies 39 percent of the time, and 36 percent of bored people open up a bag of potato chips.

The Source of Our Cravings

Knowing how we form an association with comfort foods can move us a long way in helping consumers develop healthy habits that lead to a more nutritious lifestyle. To begin to understand the evolution of a comfort food, we analyzed 45-minute in-depth interviews, looking for patterns across foods and across personality types.

People list a number of reasons for the way foods become comfort foods. But two crop up most often: Past associations with the product and personality identification.

People cognitively connect past associations between foods and people in their lives ("My father loved green bean casserole") or specific events ("My mom always gave me soup when it was cold out or when I was not feeling well"). Some foods come to be associated with feelings one likes to recall or wants to recapture ("We always got ice cream after we won baseball games as a kid" or "I always associate Slurpees with carefree summers as a boy"). In some cases, these are vivid iconic instances one will flash on when thinking, tasting, or smelling the food. Yet in all instances, the general feelings evoked - safety, love, homecoming, appreciation, control, victory, empowerment - are underlying factors in the drive toward consumption.

Another agent of converting food to comfort food status is that people simply identify with some foods. They begin to focus on aspects of the product that they see consistent with their personality. Preliminary findings show that this issue of personality identification may be a major factor behind why some people are unwilling to cut down on red meat, for example, or eat soy products. To the strong, traditional, macho, all-American male, a T-bone steak is a strong, traditional, macho, all-American food. Soy isn't.

A vivid example of personality identification can be found in a study we conducted of 63 snack food fanatics. We did in-depth interviews on one product, the Oh Henry! candy bar, which has a very small market share. Devoted consumers of Oh Henry! characterize the candy bar as a "best kept secret," iconoclastic, unique, and stylish in a "think different" sort of way. Not surprisingly, in a separate follow-up survey, the respondents rated themselves as being iconoclastic, unique, and stylish in a "think different" sort of way.

To get into the comfort food line-up, what's a soy product to do? Because comfort foods are often based on apocryphal memories, tapping into these associations can tap into a deep well of emotions. The key lies in finding the right iconic trigger points for a specific market segment. Similarly, encouraging product identification can occur through packaging, advertising, and product development.

Whereas the notion of "engineering a comfort food" brings up its own associations with Orwellian Soylent Green societies, it is important for us to realize that people's tastes are not formed by accident. The more we know about the psychology behind foods, the more we can know about how to help Americans consciously control what they decide to eat.

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