2021 Eating Trend: Comfort

The taste of things to come continues here, with comfort.

In turbulent times, demand for nostalgic and indulgent foods surges. 2020 was no exception. Leading global flavourist Marie Wright saw increased interest in indulgent flavours often considered to be comforting: chocolate, vanilla, chicken soup, cheese, and heavy dishes like macaroni and cheese.

Research by Wright’s company, cited by FoodDive, revealed that consumers tend to feel particularly comforted by flavours that they associate with memories from childhood.

“There’s a complex relationship between taste and how you feel”, explains Wright. Though the ideal “comfort” differs from person to person, there is a unifying reason behind it: “We taste with our brains, and that part of the brain that we process flavour is the same part of the brain that we store memories, and also the fact that this can trigger memories.”

Major brands have openly stoked the feeling of familiarity. Apple pie-flavoured Pepsi was released to much fanfare in December. Burger King and KFC unveiled vintage-inspired packaging re-releases this year. Budweiser revived its 1999 “Whassup” ad with a 2020 twist, encouraging its customers to check in on their “buds” during lockdown.

Fast food chain Chipotle has been widely praised for its active social media engagement. While innovative and highly relevant to today’s customer, its marketing tactics often leaned into nostalgia. This included bringing back fan favourite menu items as limited editions, recycling well-loved memes, and even hosting a virtual “prom afterparty” on Instagram Live.

Outside of fast food, FoodNavigator reports that snacking is up 88 percent on pre-pandemic levels. It highlights research by Mondelēz International, in which customers named “comfort” as their single biggest motivator for snacking.

Nostalgic flavours feature prominently in recent product launches. Pukka Pies have released a new range in Sunday roast flavours. Brakes recently unveiled plant-based versions of classic English desserts, such as jam roly-poly and jaffa cake. London-based Joe & Seph’s new popcorn bars are made from, in their own words, “kitchen cupboard ingredients.”

Alternatives to meet the twinned demand for comfort and health, which the pandemic has also spurred, are rising too. Pukka released its first range of plant-based pies in September. Through its Good Food Fund, Mission Ventures this year invested in snack brands helping to fight childhood obesity. The list includes vintage-inspired Lexi’s Treats, known for their puffed rice-and-marshmallow bars, and Snackzilla whose oat cookies are made using an old family recipe.

With uncertainty still persisting globally, demand for “comforting” foods looks set to endure into 2021. And although this highly personal category appears to lend itself to the familiar, there is clearly still space within it for invention, and even surprise.

For more on the future of eating habits, see our 2021 trend report: Health

Images courtesy of Taryn Elliott and Vitaly Vlasov.

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Karl Finn

Karl Finn

Writer in London. Currently run events at Google, formerly V&A and Sotheby’s. Founder of Predictedit, a newsletter bringing together trends, research and ideas.