Pandemic comfort food offers too much solace

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As Mary Poppins sang in the 1964 film, “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down/In a most delightful way.” The song was inspired by the lyricist’s son being given his oral polio vaccine with sugar, and Krispy Kreme followed nanny’s edict this week, offering all Americans vaccinated against Covid-19 a free glazed doughnut daily for the rest of the year.

Doughnuts are not the only comfort food to have flourished during the pandemic. Sales of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, an 84-year-old product that was being left behind in the consumer shift to smaller, healthier brands, contributed to the growth in sales at Kraft Heinz last year.

Vaccines are scarce but treats are plentiful. Booking slots to swim in my local pool were snapped up fast as it prepared to reopen after three months of lockdown. But Cadbury’s Creme Eggs are still piled up for sale in the supermarket. I failed to resist temptation.

Before the pandemic, food and drink groups were on a self-interested path towards making more virtuous products, removing artificial ingredients (Kraft did so with macaroni and cheese) and touting health benefits. Cadbury’s owner Mondelez International this week acquired a majority stake in Grenade, UK maker of Carb Killa, the best-selling protein bars.

They are now having second thoughts. AG Barr, the Scottish drinks group, halved the sugar in Irn-Bru, its fizzy orange-coloured soda, three years ago, replacing some with low-calorie sweetener. This week, it rolled out Irn-Bru 1901, a spin-off based on an old recipe, which contains even more sugar than the original version.

It is understandable that people have done a lot of comfort eating in the past year, from mac and cheese to takeaway pizza. Many needed a dose of pleasure in the face of anxiety, loneliness and stress; as Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote, “all sorrows are less with bread”.

Comfort food is not an illusion — eating really can trigger feelings of psychological relief, and one study found that highly stressed women who gained weight as a result of “emotional eating” later coped with stress more calmly. There is a reason we resort to munching when things get too much. 

Some of this dependence may fade as we escape from lockdown and are allowed to experience variety and entertainment again. Laboratory rats confined in small spaces tend to behave in a less anxious or depressed manner when given “palatable comfort food”. Sound familiar?

Habits acquired over months at home will be hard to break. Nearly half of US millennials surveyed by American Psychological Association this month said they had put on unwanted weight in the pandemic, reporting an average gain of 18.5kg. That is a lot of doughnuts.

The chances of them slimming down again depend on which comfort the food provides — its taste, or what it conjures. One Mondelez report on snackers around the world found that more of them ate for comfort in the pandemic and bought “nostalgic snack brands from childhood”.

Krispy Kreme has followed nanny’s edict, offering all Americans vaccinated against Covid-19 free glazed doughnuts
Krispy Kreme has followed nanny’s edict, offering all Americans vaccinated against Covid-19 free glazed doughnuts © Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty

This is one meaning of comfort food: recipes such as paella, pastas or chicken soup may be healthy, but are especially satisfying because of their association with childhood and familial reassurance. They provide consolations that reach beyond enjoyment to emotional sustenance.

But the rats in the laboratory are not eating high-fat lard and sucrose because it tastes like the meals their grannies used to make. There is visceral pleasure in consuming chocolate, ice-cream and snacks that are made to be distracting and indulgent.

It is fine in moderation. One study of older adults in the US found that putting on some weight with comfort eating of the nostalgic kind was healthier than being too thin, especially among over-65s. The pandemic binge will leave no permanent damage if moderation returns and comfort no longer has to come in a packet.

There are two obstacles. One is that food and drink companies have now learnt that traditional formulas can be sold effectively as comfort food, with some tweaking to combine nostalgia with social responsibility. Kraft is now testing recyclable fibre-based cups for macaroni and cheese.

The second obstacle is that the pandemic may entrench an inequality in fitness and nutrition that was already growing — in short, the better-off are more likely to eat healthily and to take physical exercise. Kasper Rorsted, chief executive of Adidas, told the Financial Times this week that the company intends to produce more hiking and outdoor gear to address this market.

“Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’,” the Palm Beach Post wrote in 1966 in the first recorded use of the phrase. That stress will ease faster for the wealthy than those who will still be living in cramped spaces and facing financial uncertainty.

Mary Poppins was right: a spoonful of sugar is delightful. But too many spoonfuls, although they help with anxiety, are unhealthy. That quantum of nutritional solace is no comfort at all.

john.gapper@ft.com

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