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Surprise! Sometimes comfort foods are good for you
(CNN) -- Sure, ice cream is nice and chocolate is choice. But not all comfort food is unhealthy, according to a University of Illinois researcher who studies food trends.
"Most of the time, when people talk about comfort foods, we think of things that are really bad for you -- cookies or chips, maybe," says Brian Wansink, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of the university's food and brand laboratory. "But 40 percent of the time, people choose foods that aren't necessarily bad, like chicken noodle soup, pasta and pizza ... things that, relative to ice cream, are good for you." A 40-year-old Iowa native, Wansink is something of a food freak. If it concerns food, he has a few questions. And if you ever even thought about eating it or buying it, he wants to know why.
He's studied how much popcorn people eat at the movies (more for sad films than comedies), and discovered that about 12 percent of the goods Americans bring home are thrown away unused.
"I started out looking at consumer acceptance of soy products," says the professor, whose forebears grew corn and soybeans near Sioux City, Iowa.
The psychological associations people have with comfort foods and cravings for sweet or salty treats have been documented. But questions remained for Wansink, he says -- "Why some people seem to be drawn to them, and not just the notion of 'it's good for me,' but that for some, it's a notion of comfort."
He recalls a colleague at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia whose fond memories of green bean casserole made with mushroom soup led to this most-recent study.
"There were three stages to the research," explains Wansink. "We did in-depth interviews with about 80 people or so, sent out a questionnaire to about 400 people, and then did a large-scale phone survey of more than 1,000 people."
What researchers found is that people love to talk about their favorite foods.
"Sometimes it got to the point of, 'Well, how do I get out of this (conversation) gracefully'," he says with a laugh.
Key findings are:
* Comfort foods are often distinct from typical "taste-good" snack foods.
"It isn't just the food, either," says Wansink. "People might say that chocolate chip cookies are good, but they have to be freshly baked cookies."
This is because warm-from-the-oven cookies are associated with mom being nearby, while cold or room temperature cookies straight from the bag have no such connotation, he explains. "It's the same product, but two different takes."
People also tend to eat comfort foods more often when they are feeling happy or want to celebrate, he says. But women are more likely than men to eat such foods when they are feeling down.
"Also, with men, there's a preference toward comfort food that's a little more healthy, like meat, pasta and potatoes," adds Wansink. "Women choose things like chips, cookies, chocolate and cake."
Both genders pick ice cream as their No. 1 comfort food, though.
"If we look at it from a dietary standpoint, a nutrition education standpoint, it's important for people to realize that if they're feeling really good or bad, they're much more likely to eat these kinds of foods," says the professor. "And so now that we know there are these cravings, we can satisfy them in another way -- say with an apple or something more nutritious."
Wansink's next areas of study include a project to survey 10,000 people who served in World War II and compare their food choices with those of people who did not serve in the war. "I want to know how that (war) experience changed their consumption habits and how it's persisted over the past 60 years," he says.
Preliminary findings indicate that Pacific Theater veterans avoid island or cruise vacations and are less likely to eat Chinese food than those who served in the European Theater.
Remaking comfort foods for the health conscious
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Food & Brand Lab
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