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Craving Comfort Food? This Zicklin Professor Knows Why

April 15, 2021

It’s no secret that during the pandemic, our consumption of simple, familiar foods—pizza, potato chips, chocolate—increased dramatically, as reflected in sales data. Now, new research by Diogo Hildebrand (PhD, ’13), an assistant professor in the Allen G. Aaronson Department of Marketing and International Business, offers some insight into why.​

When we’re tired, anxious, or stressed out, our ability to enjoy complex-tasting foods decreases, according to Prof. Hildebrand’s research, published last year in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. “Cognitive depletion reduces consumer enjoyment of complex-flavored (but not simple-flavored) foods,” he and his co-authors write. They call this phenomenon “flavor fatigue,” and the term was recently cited by Forbes magazine as the number-one trend that will define food and lifestyle in 2021.

Dr. Hildebrand and his co-authors — fellow Zicklin alumni Rhonda Hadi (PhD, ’14), Thomas Kramer (BBA ’95, MBA ’98), and Dan Rubin (MBA ’15, PhD ’16) — asked study participants to solve an anagram puzzle that was either easy or hard, then had them taste two different flavors of chocolate (plain or mint) or potato chips (plain or salt and vinegar) and rate their preference.

“People who were cognitively depleted because they did a hard anagram reported liking the more complex, mint-flavored chocolate less than the simple-tasting plain chocolate, for example,” Hildebrand says, “but people who did an easy anagram liked the complex-tasting chocolate as much as and sometimes more than the plain.”

Although the research was carried out before COVID-19, the pandemic has only accelerated this trend, Hildebrand notes: “There’s a lot of cognitive depletion happening during the pandemic. We’re constantly having to regulate our emotions and handle so many different things, so at the end of the day we turn to the simple, familiar foods we know and love.”

What was the inspiration for the research? Hildebrand’s colleague Dan Rubin had a friend who worked as a gourmet brewmaster at a local pub. When Dr. Rubin met with the friend after work one day for a beer, his friend popped open a can of Miller Lite—to Rubin’s great surprise—and said, “By the end of the day I’m so tired mentally I just need to taste something simple.” And a hypothesis was born.

Despite the researchers’ focus on potato chips, chocolate, and beer, flavor fatigue doesn’t have to mean reaching for high-fat, unhealthy foods, however. Hildebrand observes that there has also been a spike in the popularity of simple, healthy tastes as well. “Think of all the foods that advertise that they only have a handful of ingredients, like KIND granola bars,” he offers. “It started before COVID, but again, the pandemic has only intensified the tendency.”

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