Chopsticks for Cheese Balls

A Coronavirus Boost for Ultra-Processed Foods?

Is the coronavirus pandemic giving a boost to ultra-processed foods? Maybe. In any event, it’s an appealing narrative. We’re all a little tired of reading about issues of life or death and confinement. So lighter stories about how people are chowing down on Chef Boyardee Beefaroni are welcome relief. But it’s worth noting that these anecdotes are merely small details of a much bigger picture.

Big Food Brands Snap Back

Until recently, big food brands were definitely down and out. Brands like Velveeta and Campbell’s Soup just were not worth what they used to be because consumers were opting for fresh and healthy options. Perception is reality and the perception was that big food mega-brands are simply not so good for you. So Kraft had to write down the value of its brands by hundreds of millions of dollars last year. Campbell’s CEO resigned abruptly in 2018 because the company was struggling, with no relief in sight.

Suddenly, the cloud has lifted. Soup is comforting and sales are soaring. Campbell can hardly churn out their cans of the stuff fast enough.

Easy Cheesy

Hana Thompson told the New York Times that these formerly repellant foods are now comforting to her:

One of the first things I grabbed was Kraft Easy Cheese. The disgusting orange stuff in a can. But it was one of the foods I ate growing up, so it’s a nostalgia thing. I also have a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos that I haven’t opened. How long can I last and not eat those? It’s a low-entertainment game that I’ve been playing.

Ice Cream, the New Toilet PaperHere in Pittsburgh, we found long rows of ice cream freezers empty for weeks with the advent of the coronavirus lockdown. This is more than just anecdotes, though. Nielsen reports that sales of popcorn, chips, pretzels, chocolate, and ice cream are all growing. The sales boost that big food companies are seeing is very real.

The Bigger Picture

It’s worth noting, though, that there is a bigger picture. For one thing, all of this sales boost compensates for a huge drop in food sold for consumption away from home. In some cases, these sales have almost totally disappeared. Perhaps Coca Cola offers the most helpful perspective. Some 40 percent of their sales goes to restaurants and other outlets away from home. So even though the company has seen a massive boost in grocery sales, it’s not enough to offset losses from the restaurant business. The net effect on what people are eating is not obvious.

This blip in comfort food may not disappear right away, but it occurs in the course of a cycle of adjustment to the pandemic. People load up their pantries and prepare for restricted living. We’ve been through that now. But sooner or later, we will return to daily routines and a new sense of normalcy.

What remains to be seen is exactly what that new normal will be.

Click here for more on the consumer quest for comfort food. Also, Nielsen has a fascinating exploration of the cycles of change they’ve seen in consumers adapting to the pandemic. Check it out here. Finally, click here for some perspective on what we do and don’t know about “comfort” food.

Chopsticks for Cheese Balls, photograph © Jack Lawrence / flickr

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April 8, 2020