Times are tough. Confidence is low. The economy is a nightmare. Time, then, to return to the tried and true, to the familiar, to the comfortable – to Mom’s meatloaf, to cheeseburgers, to bologna sandwiches – to, that is, the security and emotional satisfaction of comfort foods.

But is this what hard-pressed consumers these days are actually doing?

Not at all, says Stacy Wood, a professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina. Research she has conducted and will publish next April in the Journal of Consumer Research described what she calls the "comfort-food fallacy" – that in times of change, consumers are more likely to try new things rather than stick with what they know.

"A lot of comfort-food choices are habitual," she told MEATPOULTRY.com. "But during times of change you’re also changing your mindset. You have a willingness to look at new things. You’re not relying so much on the old cues."

Wood’s research comprised three studies. In the first, participants were told about a person who was described as being in either an extremely stable life situation or in the midst of many changes. Researchers asked respondents to predict whether these people would choose a popular American potato chip or an unknown British potato "crisp" in exotic flavors like Camembert and Plum. Respondents believed the person in the stable situation would have more time and energy to try new things and would choose the new item. But in a separate choice study, researchers asked participants to rate the level of change in their own lives and then to choose snacks. Those experiencing more change chose the newer snacks. In the third study Wood found that by manipulating the perceived level of change in a person’s life, the likelihood of choosing a new item was also manipulated. Wood concluded: "This result is called the ‘comfort food fallacy’ effect. It does not say that comfort foods are not enjoyable, but rather that we don’t seem to seek them out when we think we do. Contrary to our expectations, comfort foods appear to be chosen more often in comfortable times."

Other research has shown that consumers shop out of habit in supermarkets – "the same old same old," Wood says. "You often walk through a supermarket and choose products without thinking about them. That’s habit in action."

But "change begets change," she told MEATPOULTRY.com. What this means to the food industry, she added, is that "if you have a consumer segment that buys a lot of a certain product, look for demographic variables that hint at changes within the segment. Newlyweds and new parents, for example, are people going through big changes in their lives, and they’re probably going to be more amenable to new choices in the supermarket. It would be a good time for marketing coupons to those segments.

"Any time we have to make new decisions, our eyes are opened up to new possibilities," she pointed out.