Comfort Food Coming Back

Feb 06, 2009

By Tom Ryan

Due to a combination
of rising food prices and recessionary belt-tightening, comfort foods appear
to be making a comeback as consumers take a back-to-basics approach to
food choices.

According to an article
in the Chicago Tribune,
"comfort food" refers to classic brands such as Kraft’s Macaroni
Velveeta Cheese and Hormel’s Chili and its Dinty Moore brand stews. All those
brands posted double-digit sales growth during its most recent quarter, according
to Nielsen data covering the 13 weeks ended Nov. 1.

Cooking from scratch
is also seeing an increase, "elevating the humble pot roast to the
hero of the hour in many kitchens," according to the Trib.
Reflecting that trend, Nielsen data shows that Americans are cutting back
on frozen prepared foods and prepared deli items while buying more white
flour and dried beans.

"Good old basic
food seems to be doing pretty well," said Todd Hale, senior vice president,
consumer & shopper insights, at Nielsen.

Some believe that part
of the reason that comfort food may be appealing more is because people
are looking for memories of happier times inside the recessionary climate.
But the overriding factor appears to be because it’s less expensive to buy
many of these items as well as to cook at home.

Prior to the housing
crisis and economic downturn, Americans were looking for
"fancier, more convenient foods," helping drive deli items and
pricier prepared dishes. Krista Faron, a food trends analyst at Mintel International,
also said "experimentation" with food was driving cooking trends,
but now, "experimentation is no longer driving things. Comfort is more

Adam Drewnowski, director
of the University of Washington’s Center for Obesity Research, said that
for many people, comfort foods include basics like eggs, dried beans, lean
ground beef, turkey and soups.

According to Nielsen
data, sales trends were relatively strong last fall for eggs, despite a
big price run-up. Sales of peanut butter, considered "another good-for-you
comfort food," were up considerably this fall compared with a year
earlier. Fresh meat is one of the few supermarket categories tracked by
Nielsen that experienced consistently rising unit sales from July through

"People have an
innate perception of what are [affordable] nutrient-rich foods,"
Mr. Drewnowski said.

From a pure health perspective,
the downside of comfort foods is that many are packed with carbohydrates,
fat or sodium.

"There has been
some discussion that consumers will be eating a little less healthy," Nielsen’s
Mr. Hale told the Trib.

Discussion Question:
How do you think consumers’ food choices are changing with the recession
and rising commodity prices? Do you also see this shift toward "comfort"

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8 Comments on "Comfort Food Coming Back"

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Anne Bieler
Anne Bieler
13 years 3 months ago

Shoppers behavior has shifted due to the economy–away from restaurant meals to home cooked meals. The trend started as fuel prices rose in 2008, and families started buying the kinds of foods that were easier to prepare and lower priced. Comfort foods also suggest simplicity–fewer ingredients and one step cooking–slow cooker meals that might include frozen veg or mixes, soups, and a range of casseroles, pasta dishes, and skillet meals. Brand owners and retailers can really help shoppers with recipes, quick shop lists, and helping us keep an eye on nutrition for our families.

Cathy Hotka
13 years 3 months ago

Reading my depressing 401(k) statement makes me want to take care of myself!…with a steaming bowl of tomato soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a kosher pickle. I’m guessing I’m not alone.

Len Lewis
Len Lewis
13 years 3 months ago

Comfort food depends on your definition. To some it might be meatloaf. To others it’s shumai or tortillas.

There’s no doubt people are trading down in food purchases due to the economy. But food is not just an indulgence, it is an escape and just pushing items that will put them on an austerity diet and remind them of how bad things are doesn’t do anyone much good. They don’t want to huddle in a corner sharing a bowl of macaroni and cheese.

Food makes people feel better and, within reasonable prices, I believe people still want to experiment a bit with new dishes and ingredients.

Max Goldberg
13 years 3 months ago

As pointed out in the article, consumer habits tend to swing with the economy. In good times consumers are more willing to experiment and try new foods. When the economy dips there is a return to comfort foods. This is not surprising. Retailers should capitalize on this trend by adjusting their dialogue with consumers.

Ben Ball
13 years 3 months ago
Back in the late 70s and early 80s, General Mills (and others I’m sure, but that is where I worked) was doing a lot of research on the role of food and cooking in the human psyche. One recurrent theme found is that food in general, and cooking in particular, are closely associated with people’s feelings of security, nurturing, etc. Providing food, especially for a family, is one of the ultimate nurturing activities. When times are really good that role may be usurped by providing other things like electronics and clothes and cars–but it is always there. When times are not so good, it moves up the hierarchy of importance. What changes is how we fulfill that nurturing role. In the 60s and 70s, baking a cake from a boxed mix was less fulfilling than baking from scratch. In the 80s and 90s, baking from a box mix WAS “baking from scratch.” I suspect the same is true today with other foods. Is putting the blade roast in the crock pot with a can of… Read more »
Liz Crawford
13 years 3 months ago

Comfort Foods vary by cultural background, generational cohort and region. However, they always have two things in common: nostalgia and low price. Bingo!

Rachel Magni
Rachel Magni
13 years 3 months ago

I’m curious as to whether people really think they are shopping for “comfort” or whether price trumps all and they are buying the most heavily promoted CPG items (I know that Kraft has been plugging Velveeta quite a bit) in order to get a meal pulled together. My guess, from consumer shopping observations, is that the main motivation is stretching the shopping dollar and that right now, large CPG companies can help people do that better than anyone else.

Dick Seesel
13 years 3 months ago

I’m not sure there is a conclusion to be drawn when sales of both prepared foods (e.g. canned stew) and made-from-scratch foods are spiking. The common theme is cooking at home as opposed to more discretionary spending at restaurants like Applebees, TGI Fridays and others. The need for convenience in two-income families will continue to drive sales of prepared foods–but, unfortunately, as layoffs turn two-income families into one-income families, you will also see more cooking from scratch as a key way to economize.


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