Ice cream named the number one comfort food


Last updated 9/4/2008 at Noon

In 2000, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign released a study showing that comfort food is not always what we think it is.

Brian Wansink, a marketing professor who runs the UI Food and Brand Lab, wanted to know why people choose certain foods as comfort foods and interviewed randomly selected consumers all over the United States.

Defining comfort food as “a specific food consumed under a specific situation to obtain psychological comfort,” researchers asked people what their favorite comfort food was and why.

Before the survey, Wansink expected most answers to be in the ready-made sugary or salty snack food category. To his surprise, almost 40 percent of the foods listed were actually homemade, nutritious soups and entrees.

“The popularity of these less advertised and less indulgent foods lends credibility to the notion that comfort foods are distinct from ‘taste good’ foods,” Wansink said.

Preferences were also broken down into age and gender categories. People 18 to 34 preferred ice cream and cookies; people 35 to 54 preferred soup, pizza or pasta; and those older than 55 chose soup and mashed potatoes as their favorites.

Women and men both preferred ice cream as their favorite comfort food, but the women liked chocolate and cookies as second and third while the men chose pasta or pizza.

Men preferred hot, main meals to cheer them up, whereas few women identified entrees at all (probably because they would have to cook it, and how comforting is that?).

As a marketing professor, Wansink also wanted to understand the ‘why’ behind the choices and discovered that many respondents were drawn to foods that reminded them of people or events that evoked happy memories.

The ritual of going for ice cream after baseball games implanted in one person’s mind an association of ice cream with good times that he wanted to relive.

Others chose a specific food because it was the preferred food of a parent or because it reminded them of being cared for during illness or a bad time.

The researchers were surprised that people consciously gravitated toward foods they associated with happiness and feeling cared for.

Comfort food was not always a question of what’s already prepared and in the cupboard, and rather than grabbing a Pop Tart after a bad day, many of us turn to the chicken soup our mother made us or the casserole our dad liked to throw together. We use food to return our memories to summer ballgames and winter walks.

M.F.K. Fisher wrote in her book of essays “The Art of Eating,” “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.

“So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it; and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied; and it is all one.”

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