Let’s just call this a judgment-free zone until further notice.
Americans are indulging in comfort food as the coronavirus pandemic keeps them cooped up, eating sugary cereal, junk food, frozen pizza and other maybe-not-so-healthy items to help get them through the pandemic.
The trend represents a stark reversal from the national gravitation toward more natural foods in recent years, which had benefited products viewed as healthier.
But a sudden explosion of stress, boredom and, in some cases, a lack of alternatives has changed people’s habits, at least temporarily. Waistlines beware.
While stockpiling toilet paper and hand sanitizer whenever they can find it, Americans are snapping up familiar items like Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, Goldfish crackers, baked goods and dairy products.
“People seem to be craving comfort food,” said Kai Bockmann, president of dairy product maker Saputo, which reported surging sales of string cheese.
Breakfast is back
Breakfast items, in particular, are enjoying a sudden resurgence.
“I think families are turning to things like cereal to instill a sense of what’s familiar, what’s normal, something they trust,” said Ricardo Fernandez, president of the U.S. cereal business at General Mills, where sales of cereal like Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Trix and Lucky Charms are booming. “People who used to skip breakfast may come back to breakfast because their normal routine has been disrupted.”
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Dairy sales, which are closely tied to cereal, soared 60% in the week ended March 22, compared with a year earlier, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. That increase marks a sudden reversal for products like fluid milk, which had been declining in popularity for years.
Suddenly, the kitchen table is occupied with parents and kids eating alongside each other.
“It’s kind of like yesteryear, if you will,” said Michael Dykes, CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association, whose members include dairy processors, farm coops and retailers like Kroger and Safeway. “They’re all there with nothing to go to, so they’re eating meals as a family. They’re having breakfast together.”
Fernandez said General Mills plants are operating at full capacity to help meet demand from pantry-stuffing consumers for the company’s cereal.
“We’re seeing a spike across the board,” he said, adding that General Mills has taken extra precautions to protect workers and ensure food safety. “There’s certainly a rush of consumers stocking up at home.”
Kellogg, which sells Frosted Flakes and Pop Tarts, declined an interview request for this story. But the company has experienced an increase in sales across its entire lineup of products, spokesperson Kris Bahner said in an email.
Reaching for snacks and treats
Another sign of the comfort food boom: Americans appear to be baking more and consuming more sweets than usual at home.
Ingredient seller McCormick reported a sharp uptick in sales of vanilla, a key ingredient in some cookies.
Steve Presley, CEO of Nestlé USA, said in emailed comments that company’s baking brands, including Nestlé Toll House and Carnation are performing strongly “as consumers embrace familiar, comforting treats that they know and love.”
Overall, sales of fresh and packaged bakery items in the week ended March 22 jumped 37%, compared with a year earlier, according to IRI.
In general, snacks are enjoying a feast, according to companies like Conagra Brands, which sells Slim Jim jerky and Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn.
“We see incredibly high velocities across multi-serve, single-serve snacks,” Conagra Brands CEO Sean Connolly said on a conference call with investors and analysts on March 31.
Sales of Campbell’s Goldfish crackers increased 23% in the four weeks ended March 15, compared with a year earlier, according to IRI.
Spam, which is made by Hormel, is among the products experiencing “strong demand,” the company said in a statement.
Robert Gamgort, CEO of Keurig Dr Pepper, which sells Krispy Kreme donuts and Cinnabon-branded sweets in stores, said on a March 31 call that “there’s a surge of bringing” snacks home from the store.
“Behavior has just fundamentally changed,” he said.
The challenge for sellers of “shelf-stable” comfort food like cereal and dry snacks like Kellogg’s Cheez-It crackers will be to maintain momentum whenever the coronavirus eventually subsides.
“Despite strong growth over the last few weeks, this momentum does not appear to be sustainable as people will likely have fully stocked pantries with cereal and will likely not have immediate demand for more after social distancing subsides,” said Jacqueline Hiner, an analyst for research firm IBISWorld.
“However, there is potential for some sustained demand from consumers who continue to keep their pantries stocked with nonperishables to stay prepared for potential similar events in the future as well as demand from those who shift back breakfast preferences to cereal.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.