CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Why do people eat what they eat? In addition to a well-documented craving for sweet foods and salty foods, people eat foods that trigger happy past associations.
Brian Wansink classifies such foods as comfort foods. The University of Illinois marketing professor who runs the UI Food and Brand Lab defines a comfort food as "a specific food consumed under a specific situation to obtain psychological comfort." To understand why people become attached to certain foods, Wansink and his students interviewed consumers selected randomly around the country.
"We asked them what their favorite foods were as well as open-ended questions about how those items became comfort foods," Wansink said. What surprised the UI researcher was that nearly 40 percent of the foods cited as bringing comfort to the eater did not fall into the expected category of "taste good" processed snack foods.
Rather, people frequently mentioned mostly homemade "healthy" foods such as soup, main dishes and even vegetables. "The popularity of these less advertised and less indulgent foods lends credibility to the notion that comfort foods are distinct from 'taste good' foods," Wansink noted.
Did comfort foods differ by gender? In a survey of 1,005 consumers, Wansink found that men and women both selected ice cream as their favorite comfort food, but then differed strikingly, with women naming chocolate and cookies as their second and third-favorite choices, and men naming soup and pizza or pasta. "With the exception of ice cream, males generally claim they received more comfort from hot meals and from main meals than do females," he reported.
Comfort foods also differed by age, with people 18 to 34 preferring ice cream and cookies, those aged 35 to 54 preferring soup and pizza or pasta, and those older than 55 naming soup and mashed potatoes.
Although people listed a number of reasons why certain foods became comfort goods, two reasons stood out - past associations and personality identification.
Wansink said that people cognitively connected past associations between foods and people ("My father loved green bean casserole") or events important in their lives ("My mom always gave me soup when I was not feeling well"). Some foods came to be associated with feelings a person wanted to recapture ("We always got ice cream after we won baseball games as a kid") and a few involved a recollection of the specific taste or smell of a food. "In all instances," Wansink said, "the feelings evoked were underlying factors in the drive toward consumption."
Comfort-food status also was accorded to products seen as consistent with a person's self-image. Wansink and his students interviewed 63 fans of Oh Henry! candy bars, which has a small market share.
"Devoted consumers of Oh Henry! characterize the candy bar as iconoclastic, unique and stylish in a 'think different' sort of way. In a follow-up survey, the respondents rated themselves as being iconoclastic, unique and stylish in a 'think different' sort of way," Wansink said.
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