KANSAS CITY — Cookies, pies, cakes and other comfort foods may trigger nostalgic thoughts in the minds of consumers. The products’ ingredients, like chocolate and honey, may stir memories as well.

“Comfort foods can bring up nostalgic characteristics, give our brains a much-needed mental health boost or connect us to one another during stressful moments,” said Catherine Barry, director of marketing for the National Honey Board, Frederick, Colo. “Comfort foods can give us emotional support through our stomachs, which consumers often need amid a global pandemic.”

Sarah Hickey, director of insights and market research at Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich., added, “Comfort foods are any foods that bring feelings of familiarity and nostalgia. Most comfort foods tend to be considered less healthy, as they may contain higher calories, sugar or carbohydrates, but that is not always the case. Examples of typical American comfort foods include macaroni and cheese, apple pie and chocolate cake. “

While consumers are seeking baked foods that feel familiar and comforting, an updated twist could make their favorite treats new and exciting, she said. Trending flavors include s’mores, birthday cake, classic soda flavors, cookies and cream, peanut butter and jelly, and cotton candy.

“These comforting flavors show up in many baked goods, but especially donuts,” Ms. Hickey said. “There are numerous opportunities to experiment with not only the donut cake base — such as birthday cake — but also with toppings. Bakers can top a chocolate-glazed donut with marshmallows to create a s’mores donut, or top a chocolate cake donut with vanilla frosting and Oreo crumbles for cookies n’ cream.”

Formulators are blending fruit with traditional sweets as well. Flavors such as orange, lemon and berries on baked foods and within them are popular.

“We’re seeing the use of fruits on and in baked foods as a way to create a new, yet nostalgic, take on desserts, such as donuts and cakes,” Ms. Hickey said. “For example, bakers can lean into the novelty and love for sweets of yesteryear in creative new ways with desserts like Orange Creamsicle cake pops, mixed berry toaster pastries and tangy yuzu curd-filled yeast donut rolled in citrus sugar and topped with a candied lemon peel.”

Devils Food Cake

Chocolate a top flavor

Ms. Hickey cited data from Nielsen’s POS Sweet Bakery showing chocolate ranked as the top flavor among all cake/cupcake flavors.

“To match consumers’ desire for both indulgent and comforting foods, chocolate cakes are being made darker and richer than ever before,” she said. “Bakers are leveraging ingredients such as black cocoa powder, activated charcoal and richer fudge.”

A Dawn flavor trends report found 71% of North American consumers surveyed said they wanted to try new and exciting chocolate experiences.

“In addition to milk and dark chocolate, bakers can use other chocolate ingredients such as black cocoa, gold chocolate and ruby chocolate in their baked goods,” Ms. Hickey said. “This can include treats like ruby rocky road brownies, fudgy chocolate macaroon tart and dark devil’s food cake with white buttercream.”

Cargill, Minneapolis, in February fielded a proprietary survey that involved more than 600 primary US grocery shoppers of the ages 18 to 78. Seventy-two percent said chocolate lifts their mood, and 59% said it boosts their energy. Seventy-six percent said they use chocolate as a personal reward, and approxiately 30% said their chocolate consumption increased during COVID-19.

“Consumers often seek comfort in the foods and flavors of their youth, which explains the uptick in peanut butter-and-jelly and s’mores flavored products,” said Gretchen Hadden, marketing manager for Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate. “The last 18 months imparted immense stress and uncertainty on individuals and families, but it also taught many to appreciate the simple pleasures in life and the emotional benefit of treating oneself. That’s where chocolate comes into play, whether it is in confection form, bakery, ice cream or some other chocolatey treat.”

Nearly half of consumers prefer milk chocolate, but dark chocolate is more closely associated with indulgence, she said.

“White chocolate, a common choice for brands’ seasonal offerings, has its own nostalgic appeal as consumers may associate it with holiday celebrations and loved ones,” Ms. Hadden said.

Baked treats and snacks such as brownies and cakes play a role in many nostalgic and comforting products, she said.

“Ingredients like our Gerkens Duchess cocoa powder, which is designed specifically for baked goods, can help brands deliver on sensory expectations,” Ms. Hadden said. “It boasts an appealing chocolaty smell and taste confirmed by consumers and an appetizing red-brown color. Developers can also use chocolate chunks and drops to up the indulgence factor, creating Instagram-worthy appearances and unique textures.”

FONA International, Geneva, Ill., recognized chocolate in its State of Snacking 2020 report, saying traditional and nostalgic dessert flavors may be paired with spicier flavors, like a dark chocolate cayenne brownie.

Donuts and cake pops

Permission to eat honey

Permissible indulgence fits into the comfort food trend, Ms. Barry said.

“Consumers are looking for comfort food to taste amazing in the moment but then not give them a guilty feeling after consumption,” she said. “As an all-natural sweetener made by honeybees, honey provides product developers with the unique ability to sweeten comfort foods with an ingredient consumers love.”

Honey may evoke memories, often memories associated with geography.

“If you grew up in the Southeast, orange blossom or tupelo honey is likely to evoke fond memories,” she said. “Whereas if you grew up in the Midwest, alfalfa honey may recall memories of baking with a grandparent. Around the world, there are more than 3,000 varietals of honey, all dependent on where honeybees forage for nectar. This in and of itself can lend to nostalgic and comforting feelings and tastes of home, childhood, family gatherings and foods that remind us of good times in life.”

Cakes, cookies, bread and cereal can be associated with comfort.

“It comes as no surprise that baked goods and comfort foods are synonymous, especially baked goods that use honey,” Ms. Barry said. “If you think about it, honey is one of the only sweeteners that product marketers broadcast on the front of packages, as well as including it in the name of products.

“However, honey does much more than just sweeten bakery foods. It also provides flavor and functionality. In comforting breads, honey naturally extends shelf life, and in cookies, honey’s humectancy keep products moister for longer. Honey truly is a unique ingredient that provides comfort, flavor and functionality, all in an ingredient that is made by honeybees.” 

Comfort food sales still strong

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, consumers wanted to ease their anxieties. Eating became a primary way to do so. Sales of comfort foods such as snack cakes, cookies and chocolate increased. The trend, although perhaps easing, is still around in 2021.

FONA International, Geneva, Ill., in its State of Snacking 2020 report found 53% of consumers said they were buying nostalgic brands from childhood and 59% said they wanted snacks that bring back good memories. While 71% said they enjoy eating products that remind them of their childhood, 85% said eating their favorite snacks makes them feel “normal.”

In the 52 weeks ended July 12, 2020, US retail sales of cookies rose 7.5% to $8.65 billion, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Other categories growing in sales were chocolate candy, up 3.5% to $11.89 billion, and single-serve snack cakes, up 3.3% to $2.68 billion. The sales growth continued midway through 2021. For the 52 weeks ended July 11, 2021, sales of cookies were up 2.2% to $8.93 billion when compared to the previous 52 weeks. Chocolate candy sales rose 5.7% to $12.72 billion, and single-serve snack cake sales increased 3.7% to $2.81 billion.

The need for comfort, indulgence and nostalgia was a focus in 2020 and will keep going strong in the future, said David Banks, director of marketing at Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Northbrook, Ill., during the Sweets & Snacks Expo in Indianapolis in July. The best examples of products connecting with the consumers at an emotional level were Reese’s Big Cup with Potato Chips and Garrett’s Popcorn S’mores, he said.

Many consumers are buying indulgent snacks, but there are nuances depending on where they live, said Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader, client insights for IRI, at SNAXPO 2021 in August in Charlotte, NC. Urban consumers show interest in healthier snacks, she said, while suburban consumers are interested in nutrition and rural consumers are all about indulgence. Indulgent snacks are making up about 33% of the overall snacks category, which is up from 28% in 2019.

Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, Inc., was less optimistic about comfort food in a Sept. 1 webinar on trends shaping the food industry for 2022-23.

“Comfort is absolutely not the place to be,” she said.

Vaccines have made consumers more confident and wanting to try new foods although they have yet to become “wildly experimental.”

“With confidence comes the exploration,” she said.

The Delta variant has not significantly moved consumers back into the comfort food zone.

“A later strain could have that effect, which is why we have to keep an eye on this,” she said.