Top comfort foods vary by occasion, but all are indulgent, survey finds

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pizza is the top comfort food in America, Harris Poll finds. Source: iStock
Pizza is the top comfort food in America, Harris Poll finds. Source: iStock

Related tags: Eating, Cooking, Food, Us

Americans may talk big game about eating healthier, but for many that flies out the window when they are stressed – creating an opening for manufacturers of indulgent products that might otherwise be shunned.

About half of Americans indicate they eat more when they’re stressed, which often means reaching for high-calorie, high-fat “comfort foods,”​ according to a recent Harris Poll conducted in late December and released Jan. 25.

Indeed, it found, “over four in ten say they need an edible pick-me-up when they’re stressed”​ or after a really bad day, according to survey results released Jan. 25. An additional third turn to comfort food when they are depressed, while 13% do so after a break-up and 9% of those 21 years or older indulge in favorite dishes after a night of heavy drinking.

In two-thirds of these cases, Americans don’t even feel guilty about indulging, the survey of 2,522 US adults revealed. However, 41% said they sometimes work out longer or more intensely to justify eating a favorite comfort food.

Manufacturers of traditional, indulgent food could use this “pass” ​from consumers to push back against better-for-you versions that are gaining acceptance and market share, by playing up the emotional connection of their brands.

This concept cuts both ways, however. Better-for-you brands could counter with marketing that emphasizes how their versions provide the comfort without the calories, fat or extra time at the gym.

The top five most comforting foods

Manufacturers planning on pulling the comfort food card should tread carefully though as the types of foods Americans find most comforting are highly fragmented.

Pizza, which twice as many people listed as their top comfort food than any other, still garnered only 15% of the votes for most comforting. Chocolate and ice cream came in a distant second at 7%, followed by mac and cheese at 5% and chips at 3%.

Despite its strong lead as an overall comfort food, pizza tumbles to the fourth position when it comes to the most comforting foods Americans eat when they are sick.

In this scenario, pizza is usurped by soup for 39% of consumers. In particular, chicken soup won the confidence of 22% of Americas as the second most comforting food to eat when sick.

Ice cream, which comes in much lower than soup at 3%, still beat out pizza at 2% in this subcategory.

Americans reach for comfort foods during celebrations, too

Comfort foods also have a place on Americans’ plate when they are happy, the poll reveals.

In fact, 38% of survey respondents celebrate really good days with comfort food, as do 37% of Americans on their birthdays.

Just like when Americans are sick, the top comfort foods for happy occasions are very different than those for sad moments.

Steak solidly holds the No.1 spot for special occasion foods with 22% of Americans picking it over other foods.

Not surprisingly, cake comes in second place with 12% followed by pizza, which at 7% is the only food to appear on all three lists of favorites. Lobster and other types of seafood rounds out the list of special occasion foods with 4% and 3% respectively, the survey reveals.

Marketers can further maximize campaigns focused on comfort foods by emphasizing home-cooked quality or similarities and playing off nostalgia, the survey results suggest. This is based on 90% of Americans saying there is nothing like a home cooked meal and 62% saying their favorite comfort food reminds them of their childhood.

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