Eating in the Age of the Coronavirus

Eating in the Age of Coronavirus
In a time of uncertainly, indulgent and comfort foods loom large, along with worries about food safety

Along with stockpiling such items as toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and canned and frozen items, shoppers are coping with their anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic by indulging in guilty food pleasures, according to The Center for Food Integrity’s (CFI) Consumer Trust Insight Council (CTIC), which brings together food industry thought leaders and social scientists monthly to explore emerging trends.

While, on one hand, consumers are purchasing healthy foods as a preventive measure, sales of such treats as chocolate, cookies and sweet beverages are rising. If practices like social distancing and isolation continue for long, the CITC predicts that people will keep seeking out such small indulgences to give them solace during uncertain times. 

During the council’s March roundtable, members observed that the outbreak is also feeding a “homing” trend that’s been developing over the past few years.

“The world is a bit of a scary place," explained Susan Schwallie, executive director of the food and beverage practice of The NPD Group, in Port Washington, N.Y. "The home has been a very comforting spot where we can get all of our entertainment and we can get just about anything delivered to us. Your home is your sanctuary.” 

What’s Cooking

Meanwhile, for the week spanning March 8 to March 15, when measures to slow the outbreak began ramping up, the recipe network maintained by New York-based tech firm Chicory grew by 400,000 users and received 10% more views. At these rates, the company has assessed that Americans are looking at an average of 1.9 recipes as they plan meals, a 6% increase in the amount of recipes viewed per session per user. Unlike holidays, when traffic rises due to users planning their meals and occasions a week in advance, followed by a sharp day-of decline, the trend forming in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic shows that a consistent demand for recipes will keep growing or remain constant.

“In fact, users are looking at more recipes now than they do for Halloween, and we’re seeing that each unique user is looking at more recipes than the week leading up to Thanksgiving, making coronavirus’ effects even more significant than one of the most major holiday planning occasions of the year,” noted the company, which offers shoppable recipes to retailers like Wakefern Food Corp.

The top recipe views were for such comfort food and “stress-baking” staples as chicken noodle soup, classic lasagna, chocolate chip cookies, Crock-Pot chicken and dumplings, and pineapple upside-down cake, with many using their enforced time at home to learn basic cooking skills, as evidenced by searches for How to Bake a PotatoBasic Homemade BreadHow to Cook Rice and How to Make Banana Bread.

Assuaging Fresh Fears

And, for those who still want to eat healthfully but are concerned about the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables, Amanda Deering, an Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science at West Lafayette, Ind.-based Purdue University, points out that, according to current research, the coronavirus isn’t foodborne or food-transmitted.  

“From all indications, the virus that causes COVID-19 appears to be transmitted just like other viruses,” Deering noted. “This is very positive in that the same practices that we normally use to reduce contamination risk, such as washing your hands and washing fruit and vegetables before eating, should be applicable to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19.”

What’s more, Scott Monroe, Purdue Extension food safety educator, observed that many produce growers already incorporate good agricultural practice that lower the risk of contamination by a human pathogen. 

“While viruses may be transmitted from surfaces, most growers take steps to prevent contamination,” noted Monroe. “At this point in time, fear of COVID-19 should not be a reason to stop purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Although they asserted that the risk that anyone would contract COVID-19 from consuming fresh produce is small, Deering and Monroe recommended the following steps to further reduce that risk: Shoppers should wash their hands frequently, particularly after a trip to the supermarket; they shouldn’t touch produce items when selecting them for purchase; immunocompromised consumers should consider purchasing pre-packaged fruits and vegetables as an added measure of caution, or choose to eat cooked fruits and vegetables at this time; and all produce items should be washed thoroughly before eating.

During its latest roundtable, the CTIC also discussed the importance of transparency for the food system to inspire trust in the food supply when consumers are worried about health and safety.  

“While we’re in unchartered territory, tried-and-true communications fundamentals still work," said Terry Fleck, CEO of CFI, a Gladstone, Mo.-based not-for-profit organization that aims to help today’s food system earn consumer trust. "Without communication, people fear the worst. It’s important for the food and agriculture industries to help put their stakeholders’ minds at ease."

As to whether these changes will be long-lasting, only time will tell.

“It’s going to take us a little bit to see how this evolves and whether this does lead to fundamental changes in culture,” said Ujwal Arkulgud, founder of Toronto-based AI platform MotivBase and a member of CTIC and the CFI board of directors. “We know things are going to get worse. We just don't know the degree to which that will happen. Culturally and in terms of the impact on businesses, it’s a wait-and-watch game.” 

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