Comfort Foods: Overview & Most Popular U.S. Comfort Foods

The past has shown that comfort foods tend to be more popular during times of distress and anxiety, such as after 9/11, during the 2008 recession, and more recently – during the pandemic. Comfort foods have become a trend that experts think will never end.

The Evolution of Comfort Foods

  • The term “comfort food” was reportedly coined in 1970 by Liza Minnelli, a young actress at the time. She described comfort food as anything “you just yum, yum, yum.” A decade later, comfort food became an “inescapable food fad.”
  • In the 1970s, potatoes were the main comfort food. This is because they could be made in different ways. Liza Minneli for example, made hers baked with butter, sour cream, and pepper, while some opted for potatoes mashed with a lot of butter and cream. Chicken soup also rapidly caught up with potatoes.
  • Around this time, comfort foods were a guilty pleasure – meals that people loved while at home and alone. As time passed, people’s tastes diverged as they openly shared the different types of meals they enjoyed, such as soggy cornflakes and brown sugar sandwiches.
  • The fact that these unconventional meals were labeled “comfort foods” allowed “a bit of permission to admit to one’s indulgences.” Soon after, the diet industry tried claiming the term as they warned of the issues that come along with eating for emotional gratification. This tactic clearly did not work as people changed “mood food” from savory to sweet, since they sought solace in ice cream and chocolate.
  • By 1976, cookbooks were published for comforts books. During this period, restaurants “had been serving the type of 1950s middle-class, Midwestern cuisine that was, by the mid-1980s, what people meant when they said “comfort food.””
  • The 1990s saw a rise in diet trends that some suspected would be the end of comfort food. The decade started with low fat products in advertisements and supermarket shelves. While this stifled the demand for comfort food, it was not the end of these meals.
  • The stress, confusion, anxiety, and trauma caused by 9/11 led Americans to reach for comfort food again. The 2008 financial crisis also resulted in the popularity of comfort food. Since then, comfort foods have been deeply ingrained in the American culture.
  • In the 1970s, comfort foods were “idiosyncratic and solitary appetites, but over the years, as cookbooks and restaurants codified the menu, they became a communal experience. Comfort food, the psychologists Jordan D. Troisi and Shira Gabriel write in Psychological Science, feeds our fundamental need to belong.”

How Comfort Food Consumption has Changed

  • A 2020 study by OnePoll showed that pizza, hamburgers, ice cream, french fries, mac & cheese, potato chips, cookies, chocolate, cereal, and fried chicken are the most popular comfort foods in the US.
  • In 2016, a similar study was carried out by Harris. The study revealed identical results as the most popular comfort foods at the time were pizza, chocolate, ice cream, mac & cheese, chips, hamburgers, steak, popcorn, pasta, and Mexican food.
  • Sara Lee also conducted a similar study in 2018 and found that the most popular comfort foods in the US were pizza, burgers, fried chicken, french fries, pasta, mac & cheese, grilled cheese, mashed potatoes, chili, and tomato soup.
  • Based on the aforementioned surveys, it appears Americans are increasingly leaning towards sweet comfort foods. In the Sara Lee study, it was reported that Americans were “evenly split in how they define comfort food: 50 percent are on team sweet — with most craving chocolate — and the other half think comfort food should be a savory dish .”
  • The 2016 study featured more savory meals that sweet meals. In comparison, the 2020 study listed at least four sweet meals as America’s most popular comfort foods.
  • All three studies conclude that Americans consumed comfort food when they are stressed, need to remain calm, as mood boosters, or when they are ill. While 54% of women opt for their favorite comfort food when stressed, 43% of men indulge after a great day.

What Makes Food Comforting

  • In terms of the qualities that make meals or snacks comforting, almost 50% of Americans associate these meals with great taste.
  • Up to 36% consider foods that make them feel better “comfort food,” while 34% associate these meals with indulgence.
  • Regardless of the day – whether a hectic day or a good day – roughly 40% of Americans reach for comfort foods as a treat or reward.

COVID-19 Impact

  • The uncertainty, stress, and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led Americans to seek solace in food by cooking, sharing or revitalizing classic recipes.
  • Prior to the pandemic, comfort foods saw a slight decline as Americans opted for healthier meals. As described by reporters, their “long shelf life, easy preparation and relatively low cost are winning over consumers during an uncertain time, when Americans are being urged to limit grocery shopping to once a week at most and many have lost jobs, been furloughed or don’t know how long they’ll be employed.”
Comfort Foods: Overview & Most Popular U.S. Comfort Foods
  • One study examined the eating habits of Americans amid the pandemic and found that on average, Americans consume comfort meals at least five times weekly and snacks six times weekly.
  • Roughly 7 in 10 individuals surveyed mentioned that they plan to keep enjoying the same amount of comfort food they consume now, after the pandemic.
  • The study also showed that Americans spend 30 more minutes per day cooking in the kitchen, compared to the same period in 2019.
Comfort Foods: Overview & Most Popular U.S. Comfort Foods
  • Regarding why Americans consume comfort food, 41% claim it makes them happy, while 39% say it provides them with “something to look for forward to in these uncertain times, and 33 percent say it offers “stress relief.”” Up to 75% are convinced comfort foods have made a positive impact on their lives amid the pandemic.
  • Millennials are reportedly spending the most on comfort food as they spend over $70 a week on comfort food items at the grocery store. Around 75% of Americans aged 25 to 56, 57% of those aged 57 and above, and 54% of those between ages 18 to 25 are “gravitating toward comfort food more this year than last.”

Price & Sales Increase of Comfort Foods Amid the Pandemic

  • While food prices soared during the pandemic, beef, eggs, pork, and poultry saw the biggest price hike.
  • From February to June 2020, the price of chicken rose by 9.4% – the fourth highest price increase, while potato prices increased by 8.7% – the eighth highest price increase.
  • The price of breakfast cereal increased by 5.9% during this period, while the price of flour and prepared flour mixes spiked by 4.5%.
  • Comfort foods and snacks also saw growth in sales. Cookie variety packs purchases increased by 20.3%, while salty snacks purchases rose by 14.8%, and cheese snacks increased by 11.5%.
  • Popcorn purchases rose by 9.5%, while pita chips purchases increased by 6.1%.

Comfort Foods Now a Way of Life

  • Among Americans who consume comfort foods during the pandemic, almost 90% have gained weight, with the average weight gain being six more pounds.
  • It is not a stretch to conclude that comfort food has become a way of life for Americans.
  • One survey asked what it would take for Americans to give up their favorite comfort food, up to 67% said they would rather give up social media. Another 67% stated that they would rather give up alcohol.

Most Popular US Comfort Foods

A study conducted in July 2020 revealed that the most popular comfort foods in the US – particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic – are pizza, hamburgers, ice cream, french fries, mac & cheese, potato chips, cookies, chocolate, cereal, and fried chicken.

1. Pizza

  • A recent survey by OnePoll showed that 55% of Americans consider pizza their favorite comfort food.
  • This is a feel-good food that holds a special place in the lives of most Americans. In fact, 1 in 4 Americans say they would name their child “Pizza” to get a lifetime supply of this food.
  • Based on a different study by the University of Michigan, pizza is the most addictive food. It is also the food that Americans post on social media the most.

2. Hamburgers

  • At least 48% of Americans say this is their go to comfort food. Hamburgers have long been part of America’s culinary identity.
  • Its versatility and simplicity make it a staple comfort food. Hamburgers also bring people together. It is described as an “indispensable element to many gatherings with friends and family from cookouts to tailgates.”
  • Nowadays, Americans are seeking personalization, an experience that hamburgers provide. There are a lot of unique takes that make this meal an endless potential for personalization.

3. Ice cream

  • Ice cream is considered a favorite by 46% of Americans.
  • A lot of Americans consume ice cream when they are stressed, anxious, or sad.
  • Studies have shown that ice cream provides a stimulus to the thrombotonin, a hormone that triggers happiness and excitement in people.

4. French fries

  • About 45% of Americans consider french fries their favorite comfort food.
  • Although most say french fries is more of an accompaniment to comfort food than a comfort food on its own, it remains a staple in American cuisine.
  • French fries is mainly consumed with burgers. This duo not only symbolizes American nostalgia, it is also cheap and easy to get or make.

5. Mac & Cheese

  • At least 39% of Americans claim this is their favorite comfort food.
  • Mac & cheese became popular in the US when Kraft Food released a boxed version in 1937. Today, whether it is homemade or out of a box, it defines comfort food for a lot of Americans.
  • Mac & cheese – as a comfort food – is more popular among women than men.

6. Potato Chips

  • This is the sixth most popular comfort food as 39% of Americans consider it their favorite.
  • Potato chips are addictive. One study found that the “crunch sound that inevitably occurs as your teeth crush something crispy is an important part of a food’s desirability factor.”
  • This loud crunch sound is associated with the freshness and desirability of the food.

7. Cookies

  • About 38% of Americans consider cookies their favorite comfort food.
  • Amid the pandemic, most say the act of making cookies is the most comforting part.
  • Baking is one of the main habits Americans picked up during the lockdown. These individuals mentioned that baking cookies is soothing and meditative, especially during these uncertain times.
  • Cookies are considered comforting because they are nostalgic and evoke childhood memories.

8. Chocolate

  • At least 37% of Americans say chocolate is their go to comfort food.
  • Women rate chocolate much higher than men, when it comes to comfort foods.
  • Chocolate generally activates the brain’s nervous system, thus increasing “pleasant feelings and reducing tension.” This explains why it is popular among a lot of Americans.

9. Cereal

  • Exactly 34% of Americans say cereal is their favorite comfort food.
  • In the COVID-19 era, several Americans are turning to this food because it instills a sense of what is familiar.
  • Ricardo Fernandez, the president of the U.S. cereal business at General Mills, reported in April 2020 that the company was seeing a “rush of customers buying cereal.”

10. Fried Chicken

  • Around 34% of Americans claim fried chicken is their favorite comfort food.
  • Regardless of how it is prepared – crusted with crushed cornflakes or in bacon fat, fried chicken has become a staple comfort food for several Americans.
  • Men in the US are more likely to select fried chicken as their comfort food than women.

Serving Portions

Comfort Foods: Overview & Most Popular U.S. Comfort Foods

Additional Insights

  • Other popular comfort foods include spaghetti & meatballs (32%), mashed potatoes (32%), bread (31%), hot dogs (31%), and pancakes (30%).
  • The most popular comfort food snacks are chocolate (49%), chips (46%), cookies (39%), french fries (38%), candy (37%), mozzarella sticks (31%), popcorn (31%), chicken nuggets (27%), cereal (27%), and peanut butter (26%).
  • The main reasons Americans enjoy comfort foods include their great taste (47%), enhances their mood (36%), indulgent (34%), easy to make (31%), and sweet (31%).
  • Majority of the Americans surveyed (30%) stated that the comfort meal they are looking forward to consuming at a restaurant after COVID-19 is steak.
  • At least 27% are looking forward to eating burgers at restaurants, while 26% are most looking forward to enjoying pizza.
Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at The Digital Momentum with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.

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