The new definition of comfort food

by Rebekah Schouten
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Chicken fajita sweet potatoes, Pinterest
Comfort food is undergoing a healthy makeover.

KANSAS CITY — Consumer interest in comfort food is on the rise, but it’s not all carbs and calorie-packed casseroles anymore. As consumers evolve, so does their definition of comfort food.

More Americans now favor a more purposeful approach to the foods they eat than those who favor foods offering emotional comfort, according to a national survey commissioned by Foster Farms and conducted by NSON Opinion Strategy. Foster Farms worked in tandem with Pinterest, a content sharing service that allows members to save ideas (pins) in the form of images and captions to their profiles, to research the popularity of comfort food and its evolution.

Pinterest members save around 50,000 comfort food ideas every day, according to Pinterest user data, a 140% increase over last year. But what these consumers consider comfort food is changing.

Stephanie Kumar, Pinterest
Stephanie Kumar, head of category insights for Pinterest

“Consumers are still interested in what they consider comfort food, but they’re actually talking about it and searching for it in new ways that have a healthy slant,” said Stephanie Kumar, head of category insights for Pinterest. “We have the ability to dissect the data at a very granular level, so we were able to see the words that are being associated with comfort food today. Interestingly, ‘veggies’ is one of the most popular words associated with comfort food. That underscores this new comfort food evolution.”

The word “veggies” in Pinterest users’ comfort food searches and pins saw a 336% increase, the analysis found, while traditional comfort food dishes such as lasagna, macaroni and stroganoff plummeted 69%, 55% and 50%, respectively.

Consumers seem to be swapping out what they perceive to be unhealthy ingredients with vegetables, Ms. Kumar said. Some of the more popular comfort food pins on Pinterest feature dishes using lettuce instead of bread, mushrooms instead of pizza dough and shredded cauliflower instead of rice.

Broccoli tots, Pinterest
Broccoli tots have become a popular idea on Pinterest.

“We’re even seeing things like broccoli tots instead of tater tots,” Ms. Kumar said. “In general, what we see in a lot of our food and drink data is that healthy twist on an old favorite.”

Foster Farms’ national survey found that 58% of the 2,000 consumers polled find noodle and carb substitutes such as cauliflower and zucchini noodles appealing. Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., consumer psychologist, said she attributes this to consumers’ interest in new, exciting food combined with their desire for safe, familiar dishes.

Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist
Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., consumer psychologist

“I see especially younger consumers really excited about trying new vegetables and new things,” Dr. Yarrow said. “Adding zucchini noodles feels exciting and new and fresh. If it has newness and excitement and more flavor impact, I think all of these things are part of the new comfort food. People really want more exciting food that makes them feel good about themselves.”

While consumers are trading out carbs for vegetables, the protein most associated with comfort food remains. Eighty-three per cent of Americans said chicken is a staple in their go-to comfort food, the national survey found, and 63% said they seek chicken raised without hormones and antibiotics. Chicken is also the most popular protein on Pinterest, with 35 million people saving 566 million chicken ideas every year — a boost of 32% over last year.

Chicken Caprese with zucchini noodles
Consumers seem to be swapping out what they perceive to be unhealthy ingredients with vegetables, such as substituting conventional pasta with zucchini noodles.

Along with seeking healthier and more exciting ingredients, consumers also define comfort food as simple and easy to prepare, the study found. Sixty-five per cent of consumers in the national survey said they prioritize simplicity in cooking, and 50% said ease and quickness of preparation is the most important characteristic in preparing meals. On Pinterest, the terms “simple” and “made in minutes” related to comfort food both jumped 39% since last year.

“I think people are looking for simplicity, because it in some ways exists because of health guidelines,” Dr. Yarrow said. “Simple food tends to feel healthier. So a fewer number of ingredients … that’s part of the equation as well.”

Part of the simplicity relies on consumers’ ability to actually see the food or finished dish, Dr. Yarrow said, which is why the food category thrives on visual-based social media sites such as Pinterest.

Simple cauliflower pizza crust, Pinterest
On Pinterest, the terms “simple” and “made in minutes” related to comfort food both jumped 39% since last year.

“People want a lot of visual impact,” Dr. Yarrow said. “This is how people learn about the food they want to try and the way people understand food, by the way it looks. That’s a factor of social media. The visual aspects are really what make it feel safe. It feels understandable.”

So how can food manufacturers take advantage of this comfort food evolution?

“I think there are opportunities across all food partners to just tap into that healthy lifestyle change and evolution that consumers are going through right now,” Ms. Kumar said. “It’s getting creative with what we thought comfort food used to be and how we can tap into where consumers are today. How do we fulfill that innate desire to have something that would fit into the comfort food realm like pizza but maybe do it in a way that is more aligned with today’s lifestyles of being healthy and fit.”

Quinoa salad, Pinterest
Visual impact is vital in drawing consumers in and helping them understand what is in the food.

Dr. Yarrow said creating a buzz about the products is also key, as consumers continue to place more trust in social media and word of mouth recommendations about food.

“You’ve got to get consumers involved,” she said. “Food manufacturers, they really need to get people talking about their food. And in order for that to happen, there’s got to be something to say. That means it somehow or another needs to be newer, more interesting, more exciting, fresher, more visual, more variety, easier … something really highlighting one of those things consumers really want now.”

What consumers want in their comfort food, Dr. Yarrow said, is for it to be good: a word that is transforming along with comfort food.

“It used to be, when you asked someone ‘Was it good?’ about their food, and all we meant was does it taste good,” she said. “The meaning of goodness of food is so expanded today. Now goodness means is it good for you, is it healthy, is it good for the environment or good for animals, or does it look good, is it pretty, is it artistic, is it postable. Food has become so much more complicated in a good way. It’s really become enriched — the concept of what good food is. It’s so much broader than it used to be.” 
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READER COMMENTS (1)

By pedro lovo 9/9/2016 12:21:08 PM
My personal definition of "comfort foods" is a dish that is a all around food choice that you know you are going to like, for example a comfort food could be pizza. pizza is a pretty commonly liked food. my definition of a comfort food is different than the articles by the article stating comfort foods have taken a healthy spin. for me most of the time comfort food would be on the rather junk food side. The article relates to me because i've been trying to stay away from my original definition of a comfort food and have been eating healthier. I agree with the article where it stated " consumers have been switching unhealthy ingredients with vegetables". I agree because even my mother has been doing that lately