Ever rushed home from work a little early because your favorite meatloaf was being served? Ever visit the same restaurant every Friday afternoon for macaroni and cheese, burnt on the surface but creamy in the center? Ever indulge in a box of candy because you needed to cope after a particularly bad day?

Fran’s Indulgences

Well, you’re not alone. Without question, many people feel strongly about certain foods they eat. And indulge in. These foods can actually help them to feel better about life and about themselves, they can provide confidence and reassurances for a better tomorrow, and they can impart a sense of nostalgia, creating opportunities to relish childhood memories of a food experience.

Of course, some of the foods that you indulged in may not always have been good for your health. At least that’s what you were told. These foods were most likely considered too rich or too fatty or too sweet or too spicy or even too big. And sometimes they actually were, as you found out first-hand an hour or two later. But you probably ate them anyway because they made you feel good, although you might also have felt some guilt doing so. But, hey, the devil made you do it.

Recent studies, however, are showing that some of these foods may not be as bad for you as originally was thought. In fact, preliminary findings suggest that some of these foods may have components that can offer health benefits. How true these findings are will depend on time, but for now, they can provide added incentive for lovers of certain foods.

Furthermore, advances in technology and new ingredient developments can help create more healthy, tastier products—ones that you can feel comfortable indulging in. Consider, for example, the recent impact that these ingredients have had—improved fat-replacement systems, sweetener alternatives, exciting flavors and seasonings from around the world, and combinations of these and other ingredients—and the potential impact they can have in developing foods for the next millennium.

And these are only some of the ways that self indulgence or comfort foods are adapting to meet the needs and perceptions of today’s consumer. This article will look at some of these foods and drinks that can provide comfort, well-being, and pleasure. In particular, it will examine how these products have gained increasing attention in recent years, how they have changed or adapted, and how, in doing so, they have opened up newer or broader markets today.

But remember, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the type of foods we indulge in depends on our own personal likes and dislike. There is no one universally agreed-on list of foods we indulge in. For that reason, this article will be adopting a format a little different than usual.

Food Technology Editor Fran Katz will pick 10 of her favorite “comfort” or “indulgence” foods and explain how they have changed over the years. Then, Associate Editor Donald Pszczola will do the same for his top 10. Both editors will be working independently, so neither will know what is on the other’s list.

Then Associate Editor James Giese will compare both lists, providing assessment of the chosen foods, and adding a few of his own. James’ comparison and assessment will be followed by an overall look by Contributing Editor Pierce Hollingsworth at trends in the self-indulgence market.

If you have a food which you indulge in and which you feel has been the subject of increasing attention, feel free to send us a letter to the editor. Until then, please, feel free to indulge in this article.

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Fran’s Indulgences
Indulgence foods appear to fall in categories, grouped roughly by demographics. If we are what we eat, then what we eat, under particular circumstances, is also categorized by who we are.

How we indulge ourselves depends on our complex history of reactions to foods. Foods carry specific responses—they make us happy because we ate them when we were happy, they comfort us because they were treats for times when we didn’t feel well, and they serve as rewards for a variety of reasons that we probably shouldn’t explore. For women, whether pickles and ice cream makes us happy or sad depends on how the kid turned out. For men, steaks and martinis—even for those who don’t like martinis—suggest a time of life when promise was bright and the world was our oyster.

Indulgence foods are closely allied with comfort foods, but comfort isn’t all of it. The difference seems to be extravagance, but it may not be monetary extravagance. The cost may be in terms of time or difficulty or calories or fat, or some other coin of the realm. The key is that we indulge in spite of the cost and usually find ways to compensate if the guilt takes over.

Here are my choices for the top ten categories of indulgence foods, in decreasing order of importance:
1. Chocolate
It is the “drug of choice” for many of us. Chocolate’s phytochemical mix, smooth texture, and sweet, rich flavor makes it a top choice for the little reward. But a piece of chocolate doesn’t suffice for many, so chocolate forms a base for continued indulgence in ice cream and fancy desserts. “Death by chocolate” describes quite a number of extravagant desserts, including those that combine several kinds of chocolate with caramel, marshmallow, nuts, and other ingredients to achieve total bliss by the spoonful.

Chocolate is a recent innovation, about 3,000 years old. It’s uniquely American, derived from the Theobroma cacao tree and Mayan civilization, according to Sophie and Michael Coe, authors of The True History of Chocolate, published by Thames and Hudson, 1996. The Coes describe the derivation of chocolate from the bitter seeds of the cacao tree and its move into commerce in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Americans consume a lot of chocolate candy. Consumption has grown from 9.67 lb per person in 1983 to 11.7 in 1997, according to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association. Chocoholics get some relief from guilt these days thanks to several teams of researchers who have published a lot of information about why chocolate is really good for you. One of the earlier mentions of chocolate’s physical curative effects was published in the September 21, 1996, issue of The Lancet, outlining the antioxidant effect of the phenolics found in chocolate and comparing them to the phenolics in red wine. Mars Inc. has been researching the anticancer effect of some chocolate components, and has received a couple of patents on the use of certain chocolate components as anticancer compounds.

Don Pszczola, of course, will know that I will include chocolate in my list. When I’ve stuffed myself with three chocolate bars in 15 minutes, people avoid me like the plague and wait a half hour for the chocolate to work.

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2. White Foods
Mashed potatoes come to mind as an indulgent, comfort food. These days, of course, the mashed potato contains roasted garlic and sun-dried tomatoes, and quite possibly four kinds of cheese. Bacon bits are nice, too, and maybe a slug of sour cream blended in. Mashed potatoes are vegetables, after all, and we’re supposed to eat five every day, but the concept of eating five servings of French fries elicits a certain amount of tut-tutting. Mashed potatoes bring forth memories of Sunday dinner at Grandma’s as something to hold the gravy—and with all of today’s additives, they taste darned good.

Other white foods are coming into their own as well, with similar provenance as indulgence and comfort. Rice pudding—the custardy kind with raisins and a dusting of cinnamon—reminds one of Sunday or days when Mom was convinced that we couldn’t possibly go to school. Rice, eggs, and milk are comforting and smooth as silk. Tapioca pudding is in the same league.

3. Ice Cream—Chocolate or Otherwise
Ice cream is an enigma–the one place where excess is its own reward, or where calories are reduced to the lowest limit. For the high-test varieties, chocolate is a good jumping-off place, but don’t forget cookie dough, caramel pieces, fudge ribbon, chocolate-covered almonds, and more. At the same time, ice cream is also available as low-fat, reduced-calorie, and with no added sugar. So depending on the degree of guilt, consumers can choose to indulge themselves at a level appropriate to their need for comfort.

When low-fat ice cream was labeled ice milk, prior to the increase in marketing efforts for low-fat ice cream, consumers avoided the product, believing it to be ersatz and not appealing. But the term low-fat or nonfat ice cream, combined with new technologies that made the new versions taste similar to higher fat ice creams, brought consumers back. Sales of low-fat ice cream increased by 50% by mid-1995, and sales of nonfat ice cream increased by 60% during that time frame, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.

Americans lead the world in ice cream consumption, according to Euromonitor, which predicts that the United States, Japan, and France will account for 30% of world sales of ice cream by 2000. According to the International Ice Cream Association, the most popular flavor of ice cream is vanilla, followed by chocolate, butter pecan, strawberry, and Neopolitan. Vanilla is first by a large margin–about 29% compared to about 9% for chocolate. Vanilla apparently provides the base for a number of innovative combinations that include crushed candy, cookies, lots of nuts, and fruit pieces. One notable change is the real run for the No. 2 slot by companies that make caramel flavors such as Dulce la Leche in areas where the rather typical Spanish-American flavor is available.

4. Eggs—Scrambled, Deviled, and Omeletted
After several years as a no-no according to the food police, eggs are coming back strong. Armed with the information that eggs are not only not bad for you but also have very positive attributes, Americans are eating eggs for breakfast and other meals. While everyone is concerned about Salmonella and eggs, some new methods of preparing eggs with good safety records have brought eggs back onto the breakfast plate. Americans are becoming more savvy about balancing diets: when they reduce cholesterol in one form, there is the understanding that they can afford some cholesterol in another food group.

Eggs mean leisurely breakfasts, they mean weekends, they mean hotel breakfasts on holiday, or they may mean fastfood, easily eaten breakfast entrees. Deviled eggs—now available in a number of supermarkets—mean picnics and family reunions. Eggs are showing up in custards, egg salad, and other dishes, both in foodservice and at home. The development of designed eggs, with a specified ratio of white to yolk, and some products with cholesterol-reduced yolk, as well as products that have been processed to eliminate or reduce the possibility of bacterial contamination improves the popularity of eggs.

While some guilt remains, and Americans are eating fewer eggs overall, the consumption of eggs has stabilized. According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, the average consumption of eggs was 402 per person in 1945. Consumption bottomed out in 1991 at 233.5 eggs per person but had increased to 245 per capita by 1998. Eggs have become an indulgence, to be consumed on special occasions, and they provide a treat.

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5. Red Meat
Steaks, hamburgers, or prime rib—these dishes suggest indulgence and downright defiance. Red meat consumption is probably understated by individuals when polls are taken. Portion sizes have dropped, generally, except in a few restaurants. But in those restaurants, beef is king, and the portions are large. In 1997, total red meat consumption was only 1 lb less than the record high level. That red meat was leaner, though.

The proportion of fat contributed by meat, poultry, and fish dropped from 37% in 1970 to 26% in 1994. So when we wish to indulge, we can feel pretty good about it, as we aren’t adding the amount of fat that we once did. While more consumers say they don’t eat red meat, this claim isn’t upheld in surveys. Which must mean that people hide the fact that they eat red meat—making it a perfect indulgence food.

6. Pasta
The indulgence factor regarding pasta is not that consumers eat pasta, but that they eat it with garlic and olive oil, meat sauce, and other goodies. Pasta is one of those foods that one can justify—a half cup of pasta, plain, provides about 100 calories, which provides the reason to indulge in pasta. Of those who responded to an American Pasta Report survey, 40% said that their favorite pasta dish was spaghetti, followed by lasagna.

Pasta’s popularity varies depending on where one lives. Northeasterners and Westerners eat pasta three or more times a week. Overall, 31% of consumers serve some kind of pasta at least three times in any given week, 46% at least one or two times per week.

Just as there are different kinds of pasta, there are different kinds of indulgence: the family cook may feel that pasta is an indulgence because it’s fast and easy to prepare, and just about everybody likes it. Sometimes the indulgence is in popping a prepared pasta entree into the microwave and serving it without any guilt whatsoever.

But the guilt factor—which, of course, makes pasta an indulgence—is the existence of such goodies as fettuccine Alfredo, which generally weighs in at just under a gazillion calories per gram and is a wonderful thing to consume after a truly tough day. There are other such delicacies, too, such as creamy sauces, baked cheese on top, shrimp, and lobster. Pasta is a basically healthy indulgence that one can pervert.

7. Exotic Fruits and Vegetables
According to USDA, the overall market for fruits and vegetables has expanded over the last decade and a half, but the mix has changed. Traditional products have lost ground to the more exotic products, including radicchio, arugula, and red oak lettuce; leeks and shallots; great, big, perfect peaches in the middle of winter; and strawberries for Christmas. Consumers can feel very good about these indulgences, since they are part of the Five-a-Day recommended plan and are full of antioxidants and the latest phytochemicals. If they cost a little more, they’re justified. The per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables was 564 lb in 1970. By1996, it had risen to 695 lb plus.

We are perhaps getting more Oriental regarding beautiful, perfect fruits and vegetables. Fruit—perfect in shape, color, and fragrance— is often a house gift in Japan, for instance. It’s more expensive than good scotch there, and it’s a perfect indulgence.

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8. Pizza
Pizza has had mixed reviews over the years. Part of the reasons for the changing fortunes of this snack-cum-meal has been the production of lower-fat cheese and the feel-good attributes of tomato sauce, particularly with regard to lycopene. Technology improvements in the processing and packaging of frozen pizza has helped boost consumption of “mixed-grain” foods by 115% between 1978 and 1996. Pizza reminds one of being young, when pizza represented all four of the food groups and the staff of college life. Its rather natural combination with beer emphasizes that point.

The fact that nutritionists now say that cheese pizza is nutritious and okay to eat permits one to add several pounds of sausage, pepperoni, extra cheese, and other goodies and still retain a shred of justification.

Prepared pizza has been developed for the frozen market that is tastier than the original frozen pizza, and is fast to prepare, or fast to order for take-out.

9. Presqueezed Orange Juice
Maybe one had to be introduced to orange juice during the WWII years, when it was served in grade school from cans and in paper cups as a treat/punishment. But presqueezed, not-from-concentrate orange juice is a justifiable indulgence to those of a “certain”age. We feel good about drinking it, but vaguely guilty about not squeezing our own. But the guilt is vague, and the taste is good. Some of us indulge in about a half-gallon a day.

10. Danish and Doughnuts
A small, highly caloric reminder that we didn’t eat a proper breakfast again today engenders both a feeling of indulgence and a feeling of guilt. Indulgence tends to win enough of the time to explain why the high-school-graduation dress doesn’t fit anymore. Is the consumption of the prune Danish or the glazed doughnut indulgence or desperation? It’s a good question, but also a moot point.

My list of indulgence foods was written without the knowledge of Don’s or Pierce Hollingsworth’s list, but I expect that it is significantly different. Indulgence is based on demographics, and foods that are considered indulgent among my peers, representing trends that I would pick up, are different from those noticed by a younger, more with-it colleague.

Looking at current demographics, and at top trends of foods in general, indulgence comes in a variety of forms. Eating something that is really preferred is an indulgence if it’s over one’s personal caloric limit, is more expensive than one’s budget recommends, is particularly easy to get but expensive, or is hard to obtain without special effort. The way that the food developers can cash in on indulgence trends is to reduce the caloric load without spoiling the pleasure, reduce the cost, or make the food easier to obtain or more convenient. To be indulgent, a food must taste absolutely great.

And solving the guilt factors, on all fronts, may take the food out of the indulgent classification. I’m not sure this is totally positive.


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Don’s Indulgences
Here are what I consider the ten top indulgence foods, listed in decreasing order of importance.
1. Chocolate
Because chocolate is such an obvious choice (and I like to be a rebel at times), I was going to omit this food from my list. But I changed my mind for several reasons. First, I love chocolate. Second, if I omitted it, the hate mail might be staggering, and what possible defense could I offer? Third, and most important, if there ever was a food that belongs in this article, it would be chocolate, as it can be considered both a comfort food and an indulgence food. Furthermore, although everyone’s list of favorite foods would vary, I suspect that chocolate might be the one constant in that world of variability. In fact, if I were a betting man, I would wager my entire video library of more than 4,000 films that Fran will include chocolate on her list. Chocolate is truly the Citizen Kane of all foods.

Two independent studies, presented at the American Chemical Society Annual Meeting, March 25–29, 1999, investigated the antioxidant properties of chocolate which may offer health benefits. The studies, which were conducted by (1) the University of California at Davis and Mars, Inc., and (2) the University of Scranton confirmed the antioxidant potential of individual polyphenols or flavonoids present in cocoa and certain chocolates, and found that this potential was significant compared to other plant foods which have high levels of these antioxidants. Flavonoids are compounds which may reduce the risk of developing heart disease or cancer.

Although chocolate lovers will no doubt be happy over the news, it should be noted that further research needs to done to find out if these beneficial substances can be absorbed by the human body. However, the findings of these two studies may provide an answer to research conducted by Harvard University’s School of Public Health which found that chocolate and candy eaters live almost a year longer than those who abstain. If this is so, then the naturally occurring antioxidants in the chocolate may be part of the mechanism behind the observed health benefit. Again, good news for chocolate lovers.

Time will determine whether chocolate actually provides these health benefits. But in the meantime, the flavor of chocolate continues to play a major role in product development. For example, Mead Johnson Nutritionals, Evansville, Ind., recently introduced bite-sized calcium supplements which are available in milk chocolate flavor. Called Viactiv™ Soft Calcium Chews, the supplement helps women get their necessary calcium while eating a chocolate candy. Also, General Mills has introduced a new children’s cereal which capitalizes on the flavor of chocolate. The product is made of tiny rice and corn puffs which are dusted with Nestlé’s NesQuik powder to transform milk instantly into chocolate milk. The cereal is also a good source of calcium.

2. Potato Chips
In a movie from the eighties, actor Burt Reynolds was home alone with a bag of potato chips. He dug into the bag and ate one chip. After he did this twice, he looked into the camera and said, “Hmm, I guess it’s true what they say. You can’t eat just one.” The bottom line is that some people have a deep emotional craving for potato chips, and no matter how many changes potato chips go through over the years, Burt’s observation still must remain true if a potato chip product is to be successful in the marketplace.

If consumers were worried that potato chips made with the fat replacer olestra caused gastrointestinal problems, that concern didn’t show based on the success in the marketplace of Frito-Lay’s Wow! salty snacks. These fat-free versions of Lay’s potato chips, Doritos, Tostitos, and Ruffles were reported to generate $347 million in sales in 1998. Furthermore, a regional snack company, Utz, recently introduced its line of olestra-containing chips, marketed under the name Yes!, and it probably won’t be the last company to do so. The success of these products underscores the point that consumers will buy a fat-free product if they do not discern a difference in taste compared to a full-fat version.

Although olestra may prove to be an important chapter in the history of potato chips, there are a variety of other developments related to flavor, texture, and health benefits. Let’s look at flavor, for example. If you’re interested in barbecue or a spicy sauce flavor, you have several potato chip varieties to choose from, including KC Masterpiece Mesquite BBQ (Frito-Lay), Open Pit Barbecue Flavor (Jays), Buffalo Wing Sauce (Frito-Lay), and many others with and without specific brand names. If you’re interested in recreating the taste of a loaded baked potato, The Works (Frito-Lay’s Ruffles) combines Cheddar cheese, bacon, sour cream, and chives flavors. Procter & Gamble’s Pringles potato chips are now available in a pizza flavor. And a dill-flavored chip is offered by Golden Flake Snack Foods, Inc., Ocala, Fla.

When you think about texture, the line “Ruffles have ridges” naturally comes to mind, but there a variety of chips with different textures out there. Frito-Lay’s Deli Style, which has generated $103 million dollars over its first year, has a lighter flavor and texture, and is designed specifically to be eaten with sandwiches. Jay’s Kettle Cooked Potato Chips are said to offer the taste and texture of an old-fashioned potato chip. And, of course, naturally baked potato chips, beyond their health benefits, provide their own unique texture.

Regarding health benefits, Kellogg recently introduced its Ensemble potato chips, made with psyllium, which offers soluble-fiber benefits. Reduced-fat Ruffles are said to have 1/3 less fat than the regular version and are made with less oil. And, as already noted, there are potato chips that are baked and not fried.

Can you stop at one? You may have more in common with Burt Reynolds than you think.

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3. Cheesecake
Just kidding. Cheesecake has risen in popularity, becoming one of America’s favorite desserts, even topping apple pie. This year, Sara Lee celebrated the 50th anniversary of its cheesecake and is making available a 6-p brochure, “Celebrating 50 Golden Years of Cheesecake,” describing a variety of cheesecake ideas. These include Chocolate Mocha, Orange Truffle, Cranberry Jewel, Lemon-Blueberry, and Cheesecake Alaska.

At the 1999 NRA Restaurant Hotel-Motel show, I had the opportunity to interview Marc S. Schulman, President of The Eli’s Cheesecake Co., Chicago, Ill., to find out how cheesecake has changed over the years. In 1980, Eli’s had five flavors. Today, the company offers approximately 100 flavors. New products this year include Brown Cow (chocolate cheesecake, milk chocolate chips, whipped cream topping, chocolate drizzle, and chocolate cream rosettes); Cheesecake Sundae (strawberry, banana, and chocolate cheesecake with chocolate fudge topping and whipped cream, walnuts, and chocolate drizzle); Totally Turtle (caramel cheesecake with caramel, chocolate, and pecans, topped with a rich layer of more caramel and pecan, decorated with whipped bittersweet chocolate ganache and chocolate glaze); and Chocolate Banana Fusion (banana cheesecake combined with chocolate ganache and chocolate mousse with a dome of banana whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa).

Schulman compares designing today’s cheesecakes with that of “staging a Broadway musical.” The emphasis is on developing cheesecake with multi-layers, using methods such as injection or infusion to incorporate different ingredients into the cheesecake, and then orchestrating multiple stages of decorating to create the final product.

Furthermore, Schulman notes that cheesecake is becoming a popular food for home-meal replacements. A full line of single-serve cheesecakes are available, including original plain, chocolate chip, orange smoothie, key lime breeze, and toffee crunch.

And, of course, let’s not forget the holidays. Cheesecakes such as pumpkin, French silk, egg nog, pumpkin mousse, and white chocolate peppermint are offered. Truly, there is a cheesecake for every season!

4. Tea
According to legend, an American invented iced tea on a hot summer day at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, although other stories have reported the drinking of iced tea in the Old West and even before the Civil War. Whichever story is true, it is evident that the ice cube in steaming tea was one of the great innovations in the history of this drink. Since then, there have been many other important, often creative, developments that have had an impact on tea in all its forms, including iced, hot, flavored, and herbal, as well as its use as an ingredient in ice cream and other novelty foods. It is because of these developments, particularly those that have occurred over the past decade, that tea is emerging today as a comfort food.

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In April 1999, Snapple Beverage Co., White Plains, N.Y., launched its latest ready-to-drink teas. Two real brewed sun teas, all-natural regular Sun Tea and Diet Sun Tea, are said to have a light tea taste which is refreshing and easy to drink. Two new teas combine herbal ingredients and exotic fruit flavors: (1) Lightning, a black tea fortified with natural herbs schizandra, ginseng, and yerba mate, is said to help revitalize the consumer, and (2) Moon, a green tea enhanced with ginkgo biloba and kava kava, is said to enlighten the senses. At the 1999 NRA Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, China Mist Tea Co., Scottsdale, Ariz., featured its new premium green teas marketed to the foodservice industry. Called Green Star, the teas are available in natural, kumquat,and blackberry jasmine flavors.

Research has shown that teas derived from Camellia sinensis (these include black, green, and oolong) contain polyphenols, health-promoting substances which have anticarcinogenic, antioxidant, antibacterial, and antiviral action. The phenol epigallocatechin, for example, was reported to reduce rates of cancer (skin, lung, and stomach) in mice subjected to carcinogens. According to the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, research has showed that the antioxidant activity in dry tea exceeds that of more than 22 fruits and vegetables. In fact, drinking one cup of tea could make a significant contribution to one’s total daily antioxidant intake. In addition, herbal teas may provide soothing or calming effects, and lessen stress or anxiety. For all these health reasons, tea may become an increasingly important drink for the aging Baby Boomer, as well as other health-conscious consumers who want to feel good.

And there may still be some surprises in the future. Glami Co., Ltd., a Korean company based in Seoul, developed an alcohol-detoxifying tea. Called Dawn 808, the product is said to reduce the short-term effects of intoxication, help overcome hangover, and reduce long-term effects of heavy alcohol consumption such as cirrhosis of the liver, delirium tremens, and depression. The natural tea, extracted from Asian herbal remedies, alder, licorice root, mountain ash, honey, and gourd, contains antioxidant ingredients. The invention received several international awards in 1998.

At the Food Marketing Institute’s 1999 Supermarket Industry Convention, Ben and Jerry’s introduced a chai-flavored frozen smoothie, which had a taste reminiscent of pumpkin pie. Products such as these suggest future innovative developments for tea as an ingredient.

5. Pizza
There are so many different types of pizza in the supermarket today that deciding which one to buy isn’t always that easy. For example, at one time, a cheese pizza was pretty self-explanatory, but now there are extra-cheese, double cheese, three-cheese, and four-cheese pizzas. In addition, several studies have looked at ways to improve low-fat cheese, so we’ll probably see more of that as well.

Based on all these new developments, I sometimes think that future stores will have on hand personal consultants or “pizza shrinks” to listen to your needs and help select the right pizza for your mood at that moment. Here are a few possible scenarios:

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“Doctor, it’s pizza night, but the family can never agree what kind of pizza to get. My son wants pepperoni, but my daughter likes cheese. And my husband wants the works. What do I do?” Answer: Try Tombstone’s Half & Half. One pizza is half pepperoni and half cheese, and the other is half supreme and half pepperoni.

“Uh, yeah, doc, I like pizza, but my girlfriend’s a lasagna freak. We’re always arguing. What can we do?” Answer: President’s Choice has a lasagna that tastes like a pizza. It’s called Pizza Lasagna and has three layers of pasta with a pizza style meat sauce topped with onions and red peppers.

“Hi, I like cold pizza for breakfast, but lately I’m getting bored. Is there anything new I can try?” Answer: You might try pizza you can make in a toaster. It’s Hot Pockets Toaster Breaks Pizza. Also from Hot Pockets is dough-enrobed sausage pizza sandwiches. Or from Ore-Ida are Bagel Bites, mini-bagels with cheese, sausage, and pepperoni toppings and tomato sauce.

“Doc, I’m tired of eating cold pizza in the mornings. Is there anything you can recommend that I can finish during one sitting?” Answer: Yes, there are pizzas for one, and they can be oven heated or microwaved.

“I’ve heard of dipping sauces for pizza. Do you know of any?” Actually, there’s a new product called Jack’s Pizza Fries, which are pieces of crust with three cheeses. You can dip these pieces into a sauce packet which is included.

Of course, from time to time, these pizza shrinks will have to deal with patients who are even less sure of what they want. “Yeah, I like pizza. What do you have?” At these times, the consultant will have to be patient, take an extra breath of air, and say something like, “We have thin-crust, thick-crust, deep-pan, stuffed, self-rising, double-top, cheese, extra cheese, double-cheese, three-cheese, four-cheese, Italian sausage, mushroom, pepperoni, supreme, half and half, light with half the fat, restaurant pizzas that have been branded like Connie’s, oven-heated microwaved, toaster, dough-enrobed, and pizza mini-bagels.

” And if after all of this, the patient says, “Well, maybe we’ll go out to a pizzeria tonight.” You can always answer, “We have that, too. In our deli section.” And you point to the chef throwing the pizza dough into the air. 

6. Chicken Noodle Soup
At some point in life, everyone has had chicken soup when feeling ill. It made you feel better, and, along with hot tea, it is probably the most widely recognized comfort food on those under-the weather days. Of course, you don’t have to be sick to enjoy chicken noodle soup—its popularity can be judged by the number of different formulations that are available.

A look at some of the Campbell’s chicken noodle soups will give you a good idea of this wide variety: (1) traditional; (2) Home-Style; (3) Chicken Noodle O’s; (4) Double Noodle® in Chicken Broth; (5) Chicken Noodle Alphabet; (6) Healthy Request ®, said to be 98% fat free, with 30% less sodium and low in cholesterol; (7) Simply Home®, packaged in a glass container and requiring no added water; (8) Chunky Style, which also doesn’t require water; and (9) Rugrats Pasta with Chicken, which has pasta in the shape of Rugrats characters in the chicken soup.

In addition to Campbell’s, there are many other products available emphasizing health, convenience, ethnic spices and flavors, and soup as a snack. In 2000, I will be doing an Ingredients section on soups, and it will be interesting to speculate on the impact that nutraceuticals will have on soups, especially chicken noodle.

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7. Breakfast Cereals
When I was growing up, on the morning of a big test at school, I took comfort eating cereal. There was something reassuring about this food, something that told me that I would survive this day and live another. More recently, I saw a commercial that captured this basic feeling: a young father on the morning of a big business meeting has been ordered room service by his family, and the breakfast includes cereal.

Today, however, cereal is no longer just a breakfast food—it can be eaten as a snack at any time of the day, with milk or straight out of the box. Moreover, traditional cereals have been revitalized or enhanced in a number of ways, including the addition of eye-catching colors, unusual flavors, or nutritional ingredient combinations; the duplication of flavor, texture, aroma, and even appearance of other foods, such as cookies, confections, and snacks; and the use of clever novelty to attract the attention of children.

An increasingly important trend is the emphasis on nutrition, and, in particular, the design of cereals to meet the specific needs of certain age groups, such children and older adults. For example, General Mills recently announced that it will be adding calcium to its most popular children’s and all-family ready-to-eat cereals. Also, Kellogg is implementing a new initiative called K-Sentials™ to help ensure that children are getting proper nutrients for optimal growth and development. Ready-to-eat cereals will contain “nutrient bundles”—increased amounts of nutrients such as vitamin B and calcium which will improve the health of the child in areas such as growth, energy, and basic nutrition.

Because of these changes, cereals are not only a comfort food, but a comfort food with added value as well.

8. Blueberries
I have a deep secret to confess about blueberries: after pouring sugar on them, I eat each blueberry individually with my fingers. I do this because I enjoy the slight differences in flavor bursts of each berry. Over recent months, however, blueberries are fast becoming a value-added food. In addition to their flavor, color, and texture, they provide health benefits. Recent studies at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University rated blueberries as having the highest antioxidant capacity of more than 40 fruits and vegetables. As a result of this increased interest, industry is working on new product development using blueberries as an ingredient. Potential applications include breakfast cereals, salads, chicken entrees, smoothies, chutney, and sauces. 

9. Mashed Potatoes
Whenever I think of “mashed potatoes,” I think of foods like roast beef, pork chops, Swedish meat balls, and hot turkey sandwiches. So, if for no other reason than Pavlovian associations, I take great comfort in the thought of mashed potatoes. However, I also believe that products such as mashed potatoes might make for a good barometer in detecting taste preferences among the different generations.

For instance, my mother (a child during the Great Depression) would have liked her mashed potatoes plain with a little butter or a bland gravy or juice from the meat. Today, at the store, you can find fuller-flavored versions of older favorites, such as Betty Crocker’s Roasted Garlic mashed potatoes, which are said to be especially appealing to the Baby Boomers generation. This is because members of that generation tend to prefer more traditional spices such as garlic and they want those spices either in a larger amount or with a greater flavor impact. In contrast, members of Generation X prefer much spicier, “hotter,” less traditional products, so it wouldn’t really surprise me if we see mashed potatoes flavored with jalapeño peppers or eaten with a salsa.

I also found on the Web some interesting recipes for mashed potatoes which reflect a diversity in flavors. These included mashed potato with toasted walnuts (nuts are being promoted today as having health benefits); mashed potato fudge (those folks must have read about the antioxidant study described earlier in this article), and mashed potato pizza (definitely has an ethnic ring to it).

And one more thing about mashed potatoes: they were fun to play with when you were a kid. Even today, I’m tempted to build a castle or two next to the meatloaf, or plunge my fork into a potato wall and watch as the butter cascades over the unsuspecting vegetables vacationing nearby.

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10. Watermelon
When you think of watermelon, you think of hot summer days and a cooling dessert. You also think about spitting out seeds, which was a fun thing for kids to do; the pleasant, distinctive aroma of watermelon; and, of course, that wonderful texture. However, that image of watermelon as a seasonal fruit may be changing as it becomes more of a year-round staple. According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 36% more Americans are eating watermelon today than they did in 1980. Also, Canadian demand has steadily grown 18% from 1992 to 1997.

There are several reasons for watermelon’s increasing popularity: (1) Increased imports are making the fruit available year round. Recently, the National Watermelon Promotion Board launched its first winter watermelon promotion, urging retailers to offer consumers “a slice of summertime in the winter.” (2) Fresh-cut melons, available in slices, quarters, halves, or mixed into ready-made fruit salads or precut melon baskets, are creating a market, appealing especially to smaller families, singles, and the elderly. (3) Seedless watermelons and improved varieties are expanding the market. (4) For many consumers, seeds still make the difference, as seeded watermelon ranks fifth in the most frequently purchased fruits in the U.S. and is especially popular in the South and in larger metropolitan areas in the Northeast. (5) Watermelon’s red color is caused by carotenoids, including lycopene, a powerful antioxidant which may have anticancer health benefits. Researchers are currently investigating the level of lycopene contained in different varieties of watermelon. (6) Watermelon is finding innovative uses in food formulations. These include watermelon-strawberry-mint salsa for use on chicken breasts; watermelon lemonade; spring watermelon salad with citrus vinaigrette; and watermelon granita-filled lime cups.

Associate Editor

Fran’s Indulgences vs Don’s
What’s indulgent for one may be everyday fare for another. That’s what initially struck me about the two lists prepared by Fran Katz and Don Pszczola.
We all need food for sustenance. But beyond fulfilling the basic nutritional needs, what is considered an indulgence food will depend on the perceptions, life history, needs, and experiences of each individual. There are major differences in what constitutes an indulgence food for each generation.

Also, I don’t think the editors made a clear distinction between a comfort food and an indulgence food. To me, a comfort food is one that invokes a distinct feeling of nostalgia. A comfort food brings you back to your family and your mother’s cooking. Chicken soup is a comfort food. So is freshly baked bread. An indulgence food is one that carries some exotic properties. Indulgence foods are rare and not readily obtainable. They are expensive, seasonal. People indulge in champagne, cognac, and caviar. Finally, for the discriminating eater, indulgence is not gluttony. The similarities between the two lists were fascinating.

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Both editors had chocolate as No. 1. Chocolate has to be the quintessential indulgence food. It would be found on most lists of top indulgence foods. What’s neat about chocolate to me is not only the flavor, which is complex and very interesting, but also the mouthfeel or textural properties. That unique melting point of cocoa butter makes it a wonderful sensory experience.

Also, both editors missed the functional ingredient that helps make chocolate so popular: caffeine. The boost we get from the sugar and caffeine is a major part of the appeal of chocolate.

Mashed Potatoes/Fat
Both editors had mashed potatoes. But what makes mashed potatoes great? With all due respect to Don’s mother, who likes mashed potatoes with a little butter or gravy, most people like a ton of butter or sour cream on mashed potatoes. Recently, two products became available that give consumers the fat on their mashed potatoes with a health benefit. Benecol and Take Control are two new margarine-like spreads that can be used to cut cholesterol. Benecol, which contains a plant stanol ester, was developed in Finland and has been sold there since 1995. McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a group of Johnson & Johnson, bought the international marketing rights from the Finnish developer, The Raisio Group. Lipton recently introduced Take Control, a similar spread that contains plant sterols from soybeans.

Both editors listed pizza. Both pointed out that frozen prepared pizzas have increased in quality and variety. One of my favorite comfort foods is homemade pizza, pizza made all the way from scratch, with the dough made up and rising as the sauce is being made and simmered. Of course, someone else has to make it for me, and maybe that is the indulgence.

Low-Fat Foods
It seems clear from both editors’ lists that indulgence foods are ones that tip the scales in some fashion. They are heavily loaded with either carbohydrates or fats. After three decades of low-fat-intake advice from nutrition experts, the U.S. population is fatter than ever. Maybe replacing fat with carbohydrates doesn’t alter your total caloric intake that much. Some experts suggest that fat-deprived eaters are unsatisfied and their appetites demand an overcompensation, which they fill with increased carbohydrate intakes. A 1997 survey conducted by the Food Marketing Institute indicated that 56% of shoppers who had changed their diets did so by cutting down on fat consumption, but only 15% indicated they were eating more fruits and vegetables.

Fruits & Vegetables
Both editors had fruits and vegetables on their lists: blueberries, exotic fruits and vegetables, and watermelon. Does that make them unusual? USDA figures indicate that more fruits and vegetables are being consumed. My best personal memoir of summer was standing in middle of our watermelon patch with my brother Gill and dropping watermelons on the ground to split them open. If you do this just right, the seedless center pops out and can be consumed immediately. Wasteful and indulgent for sure.

Ice Cream and Cheesecake
Separately, the editors picked two of my favorites: ice cream and cheesecake. What more can I say? I don’t mean low-fat or fat-free varieties, either. Ice cream and cheesecake: an unbridled sensory experience.

Spicy Foods
Although Don picked highly seasoned potato chips, I’m surprised that neither editor included a “hot” spicy food. The popularity of highly seasoned ethnic foods has increased greatly in recent years. They are a good way to add flavor without fat. Also, peppers have very high levels of vitamin C, and salsa has replaced ketchup as the No. 1 condiment. At the recent National Restaurant Association show, I sampled a new product concept from Tabasco called Fire and Ice: vanilla ice cream with a pepper sauce flavoring. It was very odd, smooth and creamy, with a wallop of a lingering “heat” aftertaste. Clearly, it was aimed at the old indulgence standby, ice cream, with a new, highly seasoned twist.

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Associate Editor

Self-Indulgence Trends
A virtually uninterrupted economic expansion in the United States, sustained low inflation, and a soaring Dow Jones Industrial Average have created an era of indulgence—a phenomenon that U.S. News & World Report in its May 24, 1999, cover feature called “The Urge to Splurge.”

The numbers tell the story. The Dow has rocketed past 10,000—a more than three-fold increase from the 2,700 in 1989. The proportion of households with an inflation-adjusted income of $100,000 or more reached a record high of nearly 10% in 1997, according to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, up from just 5.1% of households in 1982, and approximately half of those households had a net worth in excess of $1 million.

Based on today’s demographics, such affluence will continue to grow until the Baby Boomers begin to retire in 2011 when they hit 65. Americans are spending an estimated $35 billion a year on nonessential “reward” items, according to Tactical Retail Monitor, a New York-based trend tracking firm. This led The Times of London to observe in December 1996 that “American shopkeepers are reporting a surge in “big spending” and are detecting a return to the free-wheeling self-gratification of the mid-1980s.”

Here’s what Americans consider splurge-worthy: Big food—big steaks, big scoops, big portions, and a big move away from low- and no-fat products. According to Roper Research Worldwide, more than half of all Americans eat and drink what they want despite the nutritional value, while 40% say they are not sacrificing taste for lower calories. One of the top ten most desired indulgences among women is specialty dessert.

“People are moving away from low-fat to the higher-fat products,” Robert Bregenzer, senior vice president for Information Resources, a Chicago-based trend tracking firm, told me. “The reasons are myriad. Boomers are in their 50s, making more money and figuring that life is too short to deny themselves. And they have a lot of disappointment in general with the taste of low- and no-fat products. So consumers are taking a step back.”

That sentiment is shared by Robert McMath, head of New Products Showcase, an Ithaca, N.Y., based marketing and consulting firm. “Consumers aren’t doing fat-free anymore because it equates to no taste,” he said. “Red meat is back, and super-sized portions are common. Sizes are on the upswing, even in upscale restaurants.”

Chris Sharman, editor of Marketing Intelligence Service’s Lookout product profiling newsletter said, “We’ve been seeing a general decrease in low-fat and no-fat tags over the last few years. Some low-fat lines have actually added fat. People are seeking more indulgences, and they want to be gratified and entertained by their food.”

Typifying the indulgence trend is what Sharman called “bigger is better.” Bigger packages, bigger portions, bigger individual products. He cited recent trade statistics indicating that 20 years ago, the average bagel was 2–3 oz and contained approximately 180 calories. Today the average bagel is up to 6 oz and can have 500 calories. And when Mc-Donald’s first started selling hamburgers 41 years ago, the only size was 3.7 oz. Today, that’s considered a child’s portion. The adult fare is a quarter pound and up.

Most analysts agree that low- and no fat products have generally come up short in taste and gratification. When they are good, such as Frito-Lay’s WOW! potato chip, they win. Americans are prolific dieters, but terrible at losing weight. More than half of the U.S. population is overweight, according to the American Dietetic Association. Many have simply given up. In this era of instant gratification, low- and no-fat products simply have little or no impact on the belt line.

Premium and Super-Premium Ice Cream
Ice cream is arguably the most treasured American indulgence icon. And upscale purveyors such as Haagen Daz and Ben & Jerry’s are seeing boom times. Despite line extensions into yogurt and smoothies, it’s the high-butterfat ice cream that is moving: super-premium and premium ice cream segments represented the only volume increases in 1998, up a significant 10.3% and 5.7%, respectively, according to statistics compiled by ACNielsen for the International Dairy Foods Association. This trend has put premium ice cream at the top in dollar share, at 45% of the $3.5 billion market in 1998—a whopping 12-point increase in just two years. Super-premium ice cream experienced the highest rate of dollar growth among all ice cream segments, up nearly 13% in 1998 from a year earlier. Last year, Americans scooped, spooned, lapped, and licked up 23.3 quarts of ice cream per person.

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Big Steaks
Years ago, a legendary Texas steakhouse offered a massive, multi-pound T-bone steak free to anyone who could finish it off with all the trimmings. It had many takers, but few finishers. Today, consumers can find prime steaks and big cuts in virtually every part of the country. Red meat, long feared for its alleged cholesterol-containing, environmentally unfriendly attributes, is back in a big way. The reason is simple—thick, juicy, well-marbled meat cooked to perfection remains a favorite and extravagant indulgence. Upscale and casual-dining restaurants report major increases in steak sales. At casual restaurants such as Chili’s, TGI Friday’s, and Houlihans, steak servings climbed 25% last year, while traffic increased just 4.1%, according to a report by Technomic for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). Among fine-dining restaurants, steak servings increased 16% last year (33% over the five-year period ending in 1998). Virtually every other steak statistic is up, too. According to NCBA, customer traffic at fine-dining steakhouses increased 7% (26% over the five-year period), and expenditures climbed 11% (59% over the five-year period). The most popular cuts were tenderloin/filet mignon (40%), top loin (33%), top sirloin (13%), ribeye (11%), and porterhouse, related to the T-bone (3%).

The largest upscale chains, Morton’s of Chicago and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, are opening new units at a brisk pace. “Fine dining is where we’re seeing the biggest jump,” said Lynn Petrack, a spokesperson for NCBA. “There’s a huge increase in going out to eat, and restaurants have responded with different cuts, broadening the category. Plus, the casual restaurants are doing huge steak promotions with different sauces and flavors.”

Super Sizes 
Bigger ball players, bigger sport utility vehicles, bigger theme parks, bigger Americans. It stands to reason that food in general would simply get bigger. It originated with the fast-food trade, which offered bigger portions of its regular-value meals for a slightly higher-value price. It is rapidly extending to every facet of the food terrain. International Home Foods recently introduced its Chef Boyardee Overstuffed Beef Ravioli, Vlasic introduced a giant hamburger patty–diameter pickle called Stackers, created from a specially bred giant cucumber, and Nabisco introduced larger-sized Wheat Thins for heavy-duty dipping and snacking.

More Fat
Some brands are finding that the best way to win back customers is to add fat back into their formulations. Last year, Nabisco responded with higher fat content throughout its entire SnackWell’s cookie and cracker line, save for one product, Devil’s Food Cookie Cakes, which remains fat free. The line, introduced by Nabisco in 1993, peaked two years later. From 1995 to the reformulation, sales slumped 15% per year, with a major 25% plunge in the first quarter of 1998.

Nabisco’s reformulations include 50% more fat per serving in Zesty Cheese Crackers, while Cracked Pepper Crackers and Wheat Crackers went from no fat to 1.5 g per serving, about 40% of the fat in comparable regular crackers. In addition, the SnackWell’s Chocolate Sandwich has 20% more fat than its original formulation. In several products, sugar and calorie counts also went up. A single serving of Mini Chocolate Chip cookies contains 130 calories, compared to 160 for a slightly heavier single serving of Chips Ahoy, its regular brand.

The goal was simple — regain lost consumers with a better-tasting product. In so doing, Nabisco has dropped “Low” and “No” from its SnackWell’s labeling, using a subdued “Reduced Fat” label instead.

Sara Lee took a different approach. It offers its recently introduced New York Style Cheesecake in individually portioned Cheesecake Bites and Singles in response to what the company calls “consumers’ desire for indulgence and convenience.” Sara Lee was blunt in its requiem for low- and no-fat foods. According to the press release accompanying the launch, “This shows that Americans have said goodbye to the days of no-fat and no-taste foods—indulgence is in. Today’s consumers aren’t willing to sacrifice taste for fewer calories and fat. Unlike the early 90’s when consumers were into total fat avoidance, consumers today want to treat themselves with totally indulgent, high quality foods.”

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New Indulgences
Indulgence doesn’t always mean fat and full portions. Americans are finding other ways to indulge and feel good, and redefining indulgence at the same time. Food.com is a Web site launched earlier this year to give shoppers a new way to bring their favorite foods home. The company puts menus from local restaurants on its localized Web sites. Hungry consumers click on the food of choice, and the participating restaurants either deliver or have the order waiting for pickup. This is a national company trying what many local restaurants having been doing for several years. In addition, consumers can use on-line shopping services, such as Chicago-based Peapod, to order retail products for delivery.

Sound Bites are high-tech lollipops that play music through the candy, into your teeth, jaw, and ear. It’s a stereo music sensation completely inside the candy sucker’s head, the company says. Former Mattel toy company executive David Capper developed the product. His Campbell, Calif.–based company places a chip inside the handle of the lollipop which transmits a signal directly through the user’s anatomy, instead of through the air. “The wave travels with higher fidelity through the teeth and jaw than it does through your ear because sound waves propagate better through solid materials than through the air,” stated Andrew Filo, an aerospace engineer and co-creator of Sound Bites, in a Los Angeles Times interview last year.

Designer foods largely based on nutraceuticals also reach into the indulgence category. According to Marketing Intelligence Service’s Productscan Online, new food and beverage products making nutraceutical related claims increased to nearly 9% of all introductions in 1998, a 3.8-point increase from 1996. The increase is directly tied to the waning of low- and no-fat/sugar/calorie products, in that the good is added into the formulation rather than the bad being removed. Consumers are responding to this concept.

Hain Pure Foods’ Kitchen Prescription Herbal Supplement Soups featuring St. John’s Wort and echinacea experienced a major increase in sales last year. Cholesterol-fighting Benecol Margarine from McNeil Consumer Products, Take Control Spread from Lipton, and the new and ambitious psyllium/oat bran–based Ensemble line from Kellogg also represent good-for-you products that don’t take anything out. They fit better into the indulgent lifestyle, and often have price tags to match.

Among the most exotic in the loosely defined designer foods category is super oxygenated water from Clearly Canadian Beverage Corp. These flavored waters have an infusion of 5–10 times the amount of oxygen found in regular water. The company claims that “super oxygenated water is scientifically formulated to help you refresh, replenish, and recover every time.” The introduction coincides with the rising popularity of oxygen bars, where patrons can strap on a mask and breath pure oxygen for a preset length of time. It’s pure indulgence.

Slow food may actually be the ultimate indulgence for time-strapped American consumers. It is a concept developed by Carlo Petrini and fashioned into an organization of the same name. Its mission is to create a backlash against fast food and establish food and dining as a higher social event. Its emblem is a snail, and Petrini’s manifesto reads, in part, “In our century, born and nurtured under the side of Industrialism, the machine was invented and then turned into the role model of life. Speed became our shackles. The remedy? An adequate portion of pure sensual pleasures, to be taken with slow and prolonged enjoyment beginning in the kitchen with the preparation of an elaborate meal, and ending at the table with fine wine and rambling conversation.”

It could be the manifesto for an indulgent age.

Contributing Editor