The psychological underpinnings of people's food preferences have been a continuing source of study at the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
While the human craving for salty and sweet foods is well documented, the Illinois lab has found that nearly 40 percent of "comfort-giving foods" do not fall into the traditional categories of snacks or desserts. Instead, they can be classified as relatively natural, home-made, even "healthy" main courses, and include soups, vegetables, pasta, pizza and steak.
"Comfort foods are foods whose consumption evoke a psychologically pleasurable state for a person," reported Brian Wansink, an Illinois marketing professor who heads the lab. Drawing from national survey questionnaires, the lab has concluded that a person's comfort-food preferences are formed at an early age and are triggered, in addition to hunger, by conditioned associations and gender differences.
Men, for example, find comfort in foods associated with meals prepared by their mothers (mashed potatoes, pasta, meat, and soup) rather than from snacks and sweets (excepting ice cream).
But what is comfort for men is work for women. "Because adult females are not generally accustomed to having hot food prepared for them and as children saw the female as the primary food preparer, they tend to gain psychological comfort from less labor-intensive foods such as chocolate, candy and ice cream," Wansink said. Indeed, one study found that 92 percent of self-reported "chocolate addicts" were female.
Many people assume comfort foods are eaten when a person is sad or lonely. "The opposite is often true,
Contact: Mark Reutter
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign