The study, a collaboration between New York's Cornell University and Canada's McGill University, revealed that women indulge in comfort foods to boost their emotions when they are down, whereas men are more likely to opt for them when they are happy.
According to the researchers, foods consumed to provide psychological comfort may not be limited to high-fat sweet snacks, but could also include healthier alternatives, such as energy-dense foods.
Choice of food type again varied with gender, with men generally opting for protein-rich foods such as steak, while women prefer high-calorie sweet snack foods like chocolate and ice cream.
"Foods high in sugar and fat content are more efficient in alleviating negative feelings, whereas foods with fewer calories are more efficient in increasing positive emotions," said the study.
"In the past comfort food was considered primarily as a strategy to alleviate stress, sadness and other negative emotions. Ensuring emotional well-being is still the goal, but pleasure and positive emotions can also determine food choice, especially in men," said Jordan LeBel, co-author of the study and associate professor at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration.
The research also revealed that consumers with a French cultural background as well as older consumers were more likely to enjoy comfort foods for the pleasure these afforded them, as opposed to younger consumers or people with an English cultural background who tend to opt for comfort foods when they are feeling negative.
"These results should be of interest to manufacturers with wide product lines and operations across countries who must design marketing communications that resonate with consumers of different cultural backgrounds," according to the study.
The study, based on responses from 277 participants, also revealed that men and older adults were more likely to report higher positive emotions after eating their favorite comfort foods than women, who often felt guilty after consuming these foods.
The marketing of products with a gender in mind is not a new strategy. However, a recent report from Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, points out that the relatively new 'for women only' and 'formulated for women's health' segments are growing in popularity. Sales of foods in these segment reached $4.6 billion in 2004, up 11.1 percent from $4.2 billion in 2003.
The report also suggested making a play to women's tastes and predilection for good-tasting comfort foods:
"Women believe that consuming chocolate makes them feel better, and therefore, turn to chocolate for mood enhancement. This makes chocolate an ideal flavor for foods designed specifically for women."