A comfort food fallacy?

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 15th October 2009

In times of uncertainty the common perception is that consumers will gravitate toward familiar food favourites, but new research suggests that this may not be the case.

A study in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that stress and upheaval actually lead people to choose less-familiar foods over “comfort foods.”

“Most of us can name our favourite ‘comfort foods’ and believe that we are most prone to seek them out during times of stress and upheaval,” writes author Stacy Wood of the University of South Carolina. “Contrary to this well-ingrained belief, this research shows the surprising result that our choices of old favourites happen at the opposite times that we predict.”

In the first study, participants were told about a person who was described as either being in an extremely stable life situation or in the midst of many changes.

Researchers asked them to predict whether these people would choose a popular American potato chip or an unknown British potato “crisp” in exotic flavours like Camembert and Plum. The participants thought the stable person would have more time and energy to try new things and would choose the new item.

Then in a separate choice study, researchers asked participants to rate the level of change in their own lives and then to choose snacks. Those experiencing more change chose the newer snacks.

“This result is called the ‘comfort food fallacy’ effect,” the author explained. “It does not say that comfort foods are not enjoyable, but rather that we don’t seem to seek them out when we think we do. Contrary to our expectations, comfort foods appear to be chosen more often in comfortable times.”

* Stacy Wood. “The Comfort Food Fallacy: Avoiding Old Favorites in Times of Change.” Journal of Consumer Research: April 2010 (published online September, 2009).