There’s a dichotomy at work on the American palate. Times are tense, with the economy still in the doldrums and a 40-hour workweek considered the epitome of luxury. The result often is an irresistible urge to relieve the accumulated pressures with that classic salve, food—and not just any food, but comfort food.

After all, it’s called comfort food for a reason. Ah, but here comes the fly in the cream of onion soup au gratin: The pressure also has been turned up high on eating healthy. Of course, that creates guilt when it comes to classic comfort recipes, such as mac ‘n’ cheese, meat loaf, apple pie or any of the foods associated with a safe psychological haven. But, there’s another force impacting comfort foods: global ingredients. In this manner, comfort foods, which almost got the boot in the high-trend molecular 2000s, are getting the big re-boot for the 20-teens.

According to the 2009 “Generational Comfort Food Survey,” conducted by the San Francisco-based CCD Innovation (formerly Center for Culinary Development) and published in the “Generational Comfort Food Culinary Trend Mapping Report,” a market research report co-produced by CCD and Packaged Facts Inc.,  the biggest triggers for comfort eating are, in order: cravings, stress, and  “being alone or bored.” More physical aspects of some foods also drive cravings. Texture, mouthfeel, temperature and even mindless munching were often mentioned as reasons to choose comfort foods.

“Comfort food lives up to its name,” remarks Amy Proulx, Ph.D., professor and coordinator of culinary innovation and food technology at Niagara College, Ontario. “On multiple levels, comfort food truly brings a sense of comfort, stress reduction and a sense of belonging, and this occurs in both a psychological and physiological way. Our choice of comfort foods, from a psychological perspective, is tied to our sense of relationships and being in a place of community. We have all experienced this in a simple way: Eating a traditional comfort food, a certain casserole, cake or protein dish can bring back warm emotions of friends, family and positive feelings.” (See chart “Seeking Comfort.”)

Comfort foods would not evoke such intense cravings were there not that aforementioned physical component. It goes beyond the crunch and munch factor.

“Comfort food also acts on a physiological level, where high-fat and high-sugar foods cause a pleasure response on a neurological level,” explains Proulx. “This is more challenging for food product developers. Nutrition dictates that products should be lower in refined sugars, lower in fat, and, on a neurological level, this means lower in their capability to deliver the pleasurable response.”

A 2010 study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and cited by Proulx, identified that exposure to pleasurable foods reduced stress-response hormones in animal subjects.

“Satiety, or the sense of being full, is equally part of the pleasure response,” she states. “Designing foods to deliver pleasure ties into the sensory experience of fattiness, sweetness and satiety.”

Processors caught on early that having one’s frosted German chocolate cake and eating it, too, was fundamental to the “American way.” They’ve spent the better part of the past decade or two creating foods that resonate with the “inner spiritual self,” as well as the cholesterol-controlled, blood sugar-regulated physical self. But, it has taken ingredient manufacturers time to refine texturants, oils, emulsifiers and flavorants to get to a level of proficiency allowing a low-calorie mac-‘n-cheese to “cling to the heart” without adhering to the arteries.

“When considering fat reduction in comfort foods design, a number of strategies can be implemented,” says Proulx. “If straight-up fat reduction is required, identify ways to provide other elements of the pleasure response. Giving a filling feeling or satiety response can be accomplished by increasing protein or fiber in response to fat reduction. In other cases, by choosing a healthier fat, when trans or saturated fats can be substituted for unsaturated fats, the neurological pleasure response can be retained.”

Savory Characters

Although sweets were the top choice in comfort foods, at more than 46.3%, according to the CCD survey (see chart “Comfort Categories”), the other major categories of side dishes, salty snacks and main dish/entrées totaled the savory  at a virtually even 46.4%.

In the main dish/entrées category, the CCD study included casseroles, roasted meats, braised/stewed meats, pasta, soups, sandwiches and pizza, noting that the roasted meats/entrées subcategory was the top choice. After that, study results showed Boomers opt for casseroles, while Gen Yers are more likely to go for pasta, sandwiches and pizza.

Casseroles were one of the comfort specialties making a big comeback on the heels of the fiscal crisis, due to their economical benefit of lower-cost ingredients. CCD trend research further showed that, as with overall comfort food trends, frugality is a key driver of what it calls the “casserole redux” trend. “As consumers re-evaluate their grocery budgets, one-pot meals using inexpensive and familiar pantry ingredients, but still tasting ‘new-fashioned,’ are in demand.”

The “CCD Generational Comfort Food Survey,” alongside the “Generational Culinary Trend Mapping,” determined a wealth of new “go-to ingredients” have been reshaping today’s comfort foods. Citing casseroles, the authors noted recipes are “less processed” and more “fresh.” Zucchini, spinach, “fancy” mushrooms, artichoke hearts, fresh herbs and new cheeses are enlivening the familiar casserole, they disclosed.

There also has been movement on the protein side, says the survey, with “contemporary proteins, like turkey, crab and shrimp” adding both healthful and sophisticated notes. And, again, “global flavors”—North African, Latin, Greek and Middle Eastern—keep popping up in reference to twists on comfort, allowing consumers to “eat better but not lose good taste and homey comfort.” (For more on the global flavors trend, see “Where Flavors Meet,” Prepared Foods, January 2013.)

Another main dish resurrected from and for leaner times, meatloaf, is being re-imagined by chefs, home cooks and now food manufacturers.

“The comfort food classic has re-emerged with fuller flavors, natural or leaner meat blends, and in new creative forms,” according to the CCD, exclaiming that the “old weeknight standby formerly made from ground beef, Saltines and ketchup is now virtually unrecognizable. In its new guises, it is attracting the attention of nostalgic Boomers and Gen Xers, while Gen Yers are drawn to new bolder versions.”

The survey, looking at meatloaf as “a blank slate,” found, once again, global flavorings are being employed as “an easy way to add new dimensions” to a revived classic.

“Processed meats can be challenging to make healthier and ‘less processed,’ ” says Michael Gagne, owner of Gagne Foods Inc. “Lower moisture-enhancement levels can result in a drier, harder-to-slice-thin product, and lower sodium levels can result in shorter shelflife and different flavor delivery; so, a key challenge is really achieving the right enhancement level and texture in all-natural meat products that don’t contain sodium phosphate.”

Among sources as widespread as restaurants, cooking shows and women’s magazines, the CCD cited such combinations as: venison meatloaf accented with hoisin and sriracha; pork meatloaf with fermented black beans, Indonesian sambal paste and rice; “Masala meatloaf” with ginger, Indian spices and a tamarind glaze; as well as turkey and salmon versions of meatloaf. One spa chef referred to in the study had lightened up meatloaf with lean ground beef, carrots, red peppers, lentils, chicken broth and spinach.

“For both CPG product and restaurant offerings, natural, grass-fed meats, wild-caught seafood and lean poultry are options for more healthful meatloaf,” said the study. “The key to the new meatloaf trend…is to evoke the memories of mom’s meatloaf while delivering new benefits—like contemporary flavor profiles, greater nutrition or even portability.”

On the Side

Cautioning not to neglect the sides, CCD pointed to “flavored mashed potatoes, potent sauces and interesting carriers for sandwiches” as more ways to “customize this versatile comfort food classic for various audiences.”

In spite of meatloaf and meat-based, main-dish popularity in the land of comfort, when it gets down to it, it’s the carbs consumers find big on satisfying those urges. The fact that sweets (the main carriers of sugar, the carbohydrate generating the most primal craving) led in overall comfort categories is only half of the story. Mac ‘n’ cheese and potato dishes fairly evenly split 80% of the responses for top side in the CCD survey.

It was noted that Gen X and Gen Y leaned toward mac ‘n’ cheese, while Boomers tilted toward potatoes. The authors further wrote: “A clear gender division arose in the Boomer cohort: 49.3% of Boomer women preferred potatoes, while 47.4% of Boomer men would rather tuck into mac ‘n’ cheese. No other generation split that way along gender lines.”

But, the specificity of mac ‘n’ cheese is something relatable to consumers as a powerful draw. Not only did every demographic polled by CCD “wax nostalgic for the childhood comfort of the creamy pasta dish,” but new versions and variations are constantly showing up.

Healthy Boost

“Making products healthier without sacrificing quality or flavor can be a challenge,” says Gagne. “Some healthier starches are less stable, causing changes in cooking, freezing and thawing capabilities, while other ingredients can create a different mouthfeel in the finished product. In addition, healthier ingredients tend to be more expensive, and the supply of the ingredients can be more erratic.”

Mac ‘n’ cheese and other cheesy, starchy favorites might mean comfort, but rarely have such concoctions been associated with health. It should be stressed, however, that current ingredient trends are focusing as much on less radical changes—such as spices and whole grains— as they are on sophisticated calorie replacers, such as fibers and gums. New pastas, as well as sandwich breads, and pizzas and stuffed breads, are drawing on an unprecedented variety of ingredients to increase the health profiles, without compromising the flavors and textures indelibly etched in consumer perception of these traditional treats. Fat and calorie replacers have another benefit.

“There are a number of different factors that add value, adds Gagne. “Most high-quality fats are expensive compared to some of the [starch- or protein-based] additives that can be used to simulate mouthfeel and satiety.”

Flours from whole grains, such as the increasingly popular whole-grain white wheat flour, or from other grains such as quinoa, amaranth, rice and corn, are used with increasing frequency to provide formulators pathways to creating healthy comfort. In addition, flour from potatoes (white or sweet) and seeds are becoming more sophisticated. Gone are the days when a whole-wheat lasagna or other pasta dish would come out as a gummy, dense mess—suitable only as discomfort cuisine.

The inclusion of functional and prebiotic carbohydrates, such as resistant starch, polydextrose, inulin and other oligosaccharides, konjac and other starches in both flour systems for the pasta or bread part of the formulation, or as texturants and thickeners in sauces, helps processors balance texture needs with calorie-lowering and fat-replacing demands.

These ingredients typically can be customized for all formulation needs alone or as part of a flour system. Some, such as resistant starch, accomplish multiple purposes, including lowering caloric load, increasing fiber content, adding slightly more volume to risen products and adding fluffiness to coatings for fried favorites—while increasing satiety on a functional level.

“Changing the satiety response in comfort foods is an [important] strategy” in rebooting comfort,” agrees Proulx. “Increasing the content of dietary fiber within the product alters the gastric emptying rate, leaving the consumer feeling full longer. Polysaccharide gums, inulin and brans all can be used strategically to deliver the right impact on viscosity, while delivering the satiety response desired in comfort foods.”

With the “mac” part of mac ‘n’ cheese well in hand, the sauce and cheese can be made over successfully, as well. Dairy ingredient options are as varied as they are helpful in balancing health with high-cal cravings, too.

“We’re seeing increased use of ingredients with stronger flavors, so you naturally need to use less—for example, using gruyere cheese on grilled cheese sandwiches and paninis, instead of Colby,” notes Stacie Sopinka, vice president of product development & innovation for US Foods Inc.

There are many healthier ingredients that can be used in making comfort foods that don’t sacrifice flavor, according to Sopinka. “While switching out white flour for whole-grain flours is one example, [so, too is] using buttermilk or yogurt in place of higher-calorie alternatives. Also, incorporating fresh herbs into items adds a layer of flavor without added calories or fat.”

She also mentions using avocado as a fat substitute in dressings and sauces. While avocado is still a high-fat ingredient, the fats are healthy poly- and mono-unsaturates. Plus, avocado is rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

“When developing healthier comfort food dishes, it’s all about going back to the way mom made it with a bit of a healthier spin,” says Gagne. “We keep our product formulas as clean and uncomplicated as possible. Buttermilk powder and native starches can replace some of the cream or butter in dishes, and when it comes to sodium content, sea salt delivers differently from a sensory perspective, so you can often use less.”

Sweet Comfort

As noted above, sweets were the number one comfort food across generations polled in the CCD survey, in aggregate and by the top favorites. Individual mentions in the survey included ice cream, chocolate, pies, candy bars and other dessert treats. But, one of the biggest trends on the sweet side was what the CCD terms a “return of pie.”

This return, noted the CCD, is “being met by inspired bakers [who] re-do pie with fresher, more seasonal fillings and exotic twists, fulfilling our nostalgic sweet dreams.” Nearly 75% of the consumers asked rated “home-baked pies” as their “all-time favorite dessert,” in a 2008 “Pie Slice of Life” survey conducted by Schwan’s Consumer Brands.

CCD’s own comfort food survey revealed a love of pie among all ages. “Tough times are the right times to return to pie. It can be an affordable treat and delivers a big dose of nostalgia and comfort,” stated report authors.

While the economy, simplicity and nostalgic feel of pie are big impetuses of its “return,” pie is also an example of how ingredient trends have fed into the comfort
food revolution. Everything from now-standard, trans-fat-free shortenings to lighter whole-grain flours and flour systems, to superfruit trends—specifically, blueberries and tart cherries (a.k.a., “pie” cherries”)—even “less-favored” cuts of meat for savory pies, all are drawing more attention to a short crust as a vehicle for carrying them. This is also translating to other sweet comfort foods, especially bakery products.

Recent research by Troisi and Gabriel, published in Psychological Science, shows that consumption of comfort foods activates emotions related to positive relationships, Proulx states. “From a food product-development perspective, capturing this positive emotional response is clear-cut,” she emphasizes. Alternative sweeteners have been a big boon to comfort baking. “Sugar is equally part of the equation for designing comfort foods.”

Proulx says, “Substitution of a refined sugar with a non-caloric sweetener provides part, but not all, of the neurological reduction of stress hormones, so artificial sweeteners only achieve part of the comfort response. [Therefore,] choosing caloric sweeteners with a higher sweetness threshold, while not completely removing them, can provide a balance, delivering that desired neurological comfort response.” Formulators are availing themselves of such advantages as sweetener systems using combinations of zero-cal “super” sweeteners with bulkers, like dextrose and polydextrose, to keep the sweetness at sucrose levels while dropping calories from sugar by 25-50%.

“Healthier products are in demand, and being able to offer clean, healthy and delicious products leads to increased sales and minimizes the number of new ingredients required during production,” sums Gagne. “In addition, it challenges R&D teams to do less with more; improves their reliance on additional ingredients; and motivates manufacturers to develop relationships with new, cutting-edge ingredient suppliers.”

To the Future and Beyond

More and more Americans are turning to Indian and Thai curries as familiar and healthful comfort foods. Well-traveled Boomers crave familiar exotic tastes, but also are looking for food that is easy to prepare and healthful. For Gen Xers cooking meals for growing families, one-pot curry dishes can be a snap to prepare and customize. Gen Yers seem to be the biggest fans, having been exposed to curries early on. These warming and tasty dishes are expected to hit Stage 5 as soon as a few more CPG manufacturers launch new simmer sauces, meal kits and frozen packaged entrées.

Good curries warm the chest due to intense chili peppers and spices blended into intricate powders and pastes that are turned into sauces studded with vegetables and meat, poultry or seafood. For Thai curries, coconut milk makes it all the richer and more delicious. Many Americans are turning to curry as a familiar comfort food that also is pretty healthy, with its veggies, healing spices and minimal meat.

It’s a great time to jump on the pho and Asian soup bandwagon for all generations of diners. Boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Yers are comfortable with these types of Asian flavors and look for affordable ways to fill up. Boomers will appreciate the low-fat, wholesome nature of pho, as well. Be sure to start with well-made stock and include ways to customize with fresh herbs, bean sprouts and tasty condiments. For restaurants, pho can easily be added to the soup rotation with the salad of herbs on the side. CPG manufacturers should consider adding serving suggestions on any packaged or frozen version of this Vietnamese classic comfort food.

(From the “CCD Innovation and Packaged Facts” report)