The Sensory Science of Comfort Food

mac and cheese

A sensory scientist uncovers the common characteristics of comfort foods, including regional and generational similarities and differences

In times of uncertainty, people have traditionally turned to food and beverages for comfort, and to bring a sense of normality. Such foods are believed to ease distress, which makes it no surprise that reports from North America and the rest of the world show that indulgent but comforting food sales are up during COVID-19.

But what does “comfort food” actually mean?

Our sensory team recently surveyed Kerry employees, and their answers seem to correlate with global findings on the common characteristics of a comfort food and how it makes people feel. While the individuals we spoke with were all based in Naas, Ireland, 14 different nationalities were represented, which helped us understand regional similarities and differences.

Get KerryDigest articles delivered to your inbox

For most, “comfort food” is an item that takes them back to a certain place, time, person or group of people, which in turn evokes particular feelings.

Often, people describe meals they ate with their families, treats they had when ill as a child and snacks that are in themselves old friends. Our survey respondents said of comfort food:

  • “It's the way we grilled chicken at home, with a specific seasoning”
  • “It is the typical Spanish meal that all my family enjoy together in a family event. Or even with my friends in the pubs in Spain”
  • “It reminds me of holidays”

The words people use to describe their favourite comfort foods are often dependent on the product category (more on that later) but frequently include terms such as warm, cosy, satisfying, indulgent and familiar. And this naturally impacts the way it makes them feel—secure, nostalgic, happy, satisfied, treated, cosy—all feelings we could all do with more of, especially in times of change. Although comfort foods aren’t always health food choices, only a small minority of people feel guilty after indulging.

With comfort foods playing a central role for consumers around the world as they seek to bring a sense of normalcy, security and joy into their lives, food manufacturers may want to heed some of the defining characteristics of comfort foods, and see if there’s a way to craft products that harken nostalgia, happiness and an overall sense of cosiness.

The common and elusive qualities of comfort foods

Most foods and beverages described as comfort foods are warm or hot, leading to a couple of interesting observations. One is the link between holding something physically warm in your hands and the effect this has on your feelings, literally invoking warm and generous feelings. The other is the fact that these foods are often more common in the winter, when the periods of darkness are long, meaning that hot food has been associated with warming and solace over the course of history.

The sensory properties associated with favourite comfort foods vary depending on item, so there isn’t a tick list—no “make the food smooth, warm and sweet, and people will be comforted” (although that does sound delicious and soothing).

However, there are some common characteristics by category. Here is a look at three often-cited foods during our comfort food survey:

  • Chocolate was the most frequently mentioned individual food, with nearly 25% of people identifying it as their favourite. The words they frequently used to describe it were smooth, velvet, melting, soft, sweet and indulgent.
  • Crisps was the next single category named, with people talking about crunchy, savoury, salty, full of flavour and “tickling the senses”.
  • When people talked about hot meals (which include traditional potato and pasta-based meals) they described them as tender, rich, creamy, velvety, tasty, warm, filling, cheesy, buttery and flavoursome.
Regional influences make for different soothing food selections

Unsuprisingly, as comfort foods tend to be based on chilhdood experiences, and therefore oftentimes include reginoally traditional cuisine, the actual foods considered to be comforting differ consideralbly by location. For example, in our survey several people mentioned dishes typical of their home country and at times, even city-specific fare.

Other research has found that people in the U.S. often select chicken soup and ice cream, while in Indonesia comfort food, which is known as masakan rumahan (home cooking) or masakan ibu (mother's dishes) includes traditional dishes such as noodles and soups. In other words, comfort food is often tied to the typical food of the region, such as pasta in Italy, paella in Spain and roast dinner or pies in the UK.

In addition, your age may impact what you consider a comfort food, as it’s likely to be something you ate as a child. If you ask someone what their go-to comfort food is, it is likely to be different depending on their age. Older generations are more likely to recall traditional foods and brands. For example, in Ireland and the UK, this might be stews and pies, while a younger generation may be more likely to think of things like pizza or takeaway.

Oftentimes, foods that evoke nostalgia are traditional meals or “hearty” snacks that involve a degree of preparation. For these, some of the satisfaction comes from the preparation itself, which may impart the feeling that you are looked after or cared for if the preparation is done by someone else, or a sense of accomplishment and self-care or care for others if you are the creative force.

Home cooked, grab-n-go and beverages can comfort

The increase in home cooking and baking as a “lockdown” activity fills a need both as an activity to pass the time and increases our sense of control that we can provide nourishment for ourselves and our household in tough times. This can be seen by home baking supplies selling out regularly in many countries and the rise of bakery influences on Instagram.

For some, comfort food is ready to eat, with little or no preparation. This can be particularly true for foods that are seen as a small break, such as from work or looking after children. If time is short, easy comfort food options allow more time to be spent enjoying the food rather than preparing it. Foods such as chocolate and crisps are perennial favourites in this category, and often also play back to nostalgia. These types of snacks have been eaten from childhood on, adding to a sense of continuity. (Think of your favourite snack from childhood: when was the last time you ate it, and why?) That link is still there even if your tastes have evolved, which explains why trusted brands often see an upswing during troubled times.

Drinks, too, can be comforting. Similar to foods, warm beverages are more often picked as comforting and these are often simple, everyday favourites such as tea and coffee, thus the recent proliferation of new COVID-19 coffee trends. Many of the same terms mentioned for food are used to describe the soothing feelings drinks inspire. For example, words like warm and familiar are frequently mentioned, with the interesting addition of relaxed. By restoring a sense of normality and a feeling of a comforting break some beverages really are “a hug in a mug”.

Although there’s no set formula, certain types of products tend to provide more comfort than others—including ones that are warm and smooth, or sweet and chocolatey, or crunchy and salty.comfort-food-quotes-img

Insights for manufacturers on the quest to make comforting products

People choose to eat comfort foods because they really do seem to impart a sense of ease and satisfaction and a much needed pick-me-up. Although there’s no set formula, certain types of products tend to provide more comfort than others—including ones that are warm and smooth, or sweet and chocolatey, or crunchy and salty.

If you are considering creating comforting products, look for inspiration in the products a consumer segment ate during childhood, taking into account the generational and regional offerings at the time spanning homemade meals, readymade snacks and relaxing beverages.

You may also want to investigate the theory that these foods contain some physiological benefits, too. For example there is restorative lysine in chicken soup, which is used around the world as a balm for childhood illness, and there’s a rising trend around foods with ingredients perceived to offer positive effects on mood.

Also, many foods are physically satisfying (read: high calorie), which allows the body to take a break from that evolutionary search for calories. Whether or not there is a measurable, long-lasting effect to come from eating comfort foods remains contentious, but as a perceived mood enhancer, comfort foods and beverages effectively use memorable tastes, smells and textures to take people to their happy place.

Back to KerryDigest

Related content:

Get KerryDigest articles delivered to your inbox