During this unprecedented time, people are taking different measures to cope with the increasing levels of stress. Eating comfort food has been a common way to deal with stress.
The number of search queries of foods on Google, such as “cookies”, “ice cream”, and “burgers”, as well as the sales of these foods have significantly increased during the pandemic. (1) Findings from a recent U.S study that examined people’s eating habits during the pandemic are also in line with this trend. Pizza, hamburgers, ice cream, French fries, and mac and cheese are people’s top five comfort food choices. (2)
These common comfort foods tend to be unproportionally high in added sugars, fats, and salts, which makes them less nutritious as they lack protein, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are essential for a balanced diet and good health. There are opportunities emerging for food entrepreneurs to help people release stress through comfort food but in a healthy, easy, tasty, and price-friendly way.
What is comfort food?
The original notion of “comfort food” was developed by a U.S psychologist Dr. Joyce Brother who described it as “food associated with the security of childhood”. (3) So, if it is a classic lasagna dish from your childhood favorite restaurant or a home-style fruit pie made by your grandmother, they can fall under the “comfort food” category. Now, the term has been frequently used as a marketing tactic to promote food that has the characteristics of
nostalgia, indulgence, convenience, or physical comfort. (4) In other words, when food is marketed as comfort food, people are more likely to focus on its nurturing function and tie them to the emotional needs, rather than valuing the healthiness, convenience, sustainability, and other common motives for food purchasing.
Why are people eating more comfort food when stressed?
As mentioned above, eating comfort food is a common and unconscious behavior by which people can relieve the negative emotions and feel protected and secure. Studies have also found that people who eat foods that are high in carbohydrates are likely to feel less depressed or anxious. (5) These foods will signal our body to produce a hormone called serotonin that helps decrease the stress hormone cortisol which promotes appetite and helps to calm you down. (6) In addition, when facing uncertainties, people prefer to find comfort from things over which they can have control. (7) Deciding what food to eat allows us to retain a sense of control, which explains why the consumption of comfort food has increased since the outbreak of the pandemic.
How to make comfort food healthier
As people are spending more time at home, there are opportunities to make comfort food from scratch in the kitchen. Making comfort food at home can also improve the quality of time spent with family members and mood management in general to avoid emotional eating.
Since comfort food often does not contain all the needed nutrients, pairing it with food from other groups can help balance the nutrition. For example, if the comfort food is pasta with meatballs, adding some chopped vegetables can not only increase your nutrient intake but also prolong the feeling of satiety due to the additional intake of fibre. If the comfort food is cookies, having a glass of milk can help increase the intake of protein and keep you hydrated. The rule of thumb is trying to incorporate either protein and/or fibre to the food or meals. Both nutrients are good for health. They can help you to feel fuller longer and manage the portion size of the next meal intake.
Last but not the least, there are healthy alternatives that could also bring comfort to people without compromising the nutrition value of the diet. To begin with, replacing refined grain products, such as white bread with whole-grain products can help increase the intake of fibre and other nutrients. Gelato or frozen Greek yogurt can be a good alternative to ice cream as they can provide a similar smooth and creamy taste while containing less sugar and fat. If the comfort food you gravitate towards, is crunchy foods, then roasted lentils or chickpeas can be a healthy alternative as they are high in protein and fibre. If the comfort food is something sweet, then try to have a wholesome sweet fruit, rather than a cup of juice to satisfy the craving while getting the intake of vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants.
If you are an entrepreneur looking to capitalize on this increased food consumption habit, get in touch with us! There are many food trends that have come into play because of COVID and we have been mapping them along the way. One example is the advent of people buying cake slices through home delivery apps like Skip the Dishes! If you have a cake recipe or cookie recipe that people love, now’s the time to get it out there!