Editor's Page: On Comfort Food and Choice

Editor's Page: On Comfort Food and Choice

Conventional wisdom is not always a good predictor of eating behavior.

I had the good luck to to find myself in San Francisco twice in the course of business travel in September, both times staying in hotels near the Union Square area. And glancing up Powell Street I was surprised to see the landmark sign for Sears Fine Foods. This was a welcome sight indeed, because Sears is one of my all time favorite breakfast joints. The last time I was in the city the restaurant had just closed down and word had it that it wasn't going to re-open. Like many other folks, I thought that would have been a major loss for the City on the Bay.

Sears is most famous for its “World Famous 18 Swedish Pancakes,” a local delicacy it has been serving since 1938. In its new iteration, Sears sports a modest interior refresh but the same comfort food menu and service style as before. On the last morning of my trip, I got up early so I could stand in the line there for breakfast and, remembering San Francisco breakfasts past, enjoying the classic counter service and listening to the constant clatter and crowd chatter that is an inextricable part of the overall Sears experience…

The food at Sears is a fine example of what all of us have come to know as “Comfort Food,” and conventional wisdom holds that such offerings are the food of choice for people who are stressed. But an intriguing report that is slated for publication next year in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that this not only is not always the case, but also that “consumers are more rather than less likely to choose novel options during times of upheaval.”

The article, “The Comfort Food Fallacy: Avoiding Old Favorites in Times of Change,” suggests that this paradox is just another example of how many of our generally accepted ideas about the ways consumers make choices are wrong when tested.

In this case, the article cites five studies that demonstrate that the comfort food “fallacy effect” occurs for both food and nonfood choices, “despite consumer predictions to the contrary,” and that “increasing consumers' perception of life change decreases choice of familiar favorites.”

The full analysis also explores situations in which behavior is more likely to model our conventional comfort food wisdom, but as a result of several experiments, the researchers concluded that consumers tend to choose familiar options less often when they are in the midst of change. They also suggest that this may be helpful for people who want to change their eating behavior, because such efforts may be easier if undertaken at the same time other lifestyle changes are going on.

Another new study recently posted on the Journal's web site investigates how our food choices can change depending on with whom we happen to share a meal.

The experiments described in “I'll Have What She's Having: Effects of Social Influence and Body Type on the Food Choices of Others” suggest that we are more likely to choose a larger portion of food when the choice follows that of a companion who first selects a large portion of food, but “that this portion is significantly smaller if the other is obese than if she is thin. We also find that the adjustment is more pronounced for consumers who are low in appearance self esteem.”

While no single research study should ever be used as a definitive guide to human behavior, investigations of these sorts are useful if only because they prompt us to question our accepted theories. Mary-Ann Twist, the Journal's managing editor, tells me that research into such topics is appearing in the publication with greater frequency these days. It's just another example of how food and food consumption is becoming a larger area of interest for people generally these days.

If you're interested in viewing the abstracts of these articles, or in obtaining access to the full articles, go to www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/jcr/current?cookieSet=1 [3] and www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/644611 [4]