SHIFT20: Can food alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety for consumers?

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages / william87
©GettyImages / william87

Related tags food culture SHIFT20 Gen Z Millennials

Food has become a way for consumers to ease their worries and anxiety in an increasingly stressful world, and they are looking for products that can answer their basic needs for control, community, and purpose, says Eve Turow-Paul, a writer and cultural anthropologist who presented her research at SHIFT20, the virtual IFT show.

It turns out anxiety and desire for control are major drivers of many of the food trends seen today centered on sustainability, snacking, and wellness, said Turow-Paul, author of the books, A Taste of Generation Yum ​(published in 2015) and Hungry​ (published in 2020). 

During her SHIFT20 presentation​, Hacking Millennial and Gen Z Tastes​, Turow-Paul took a deep dive into the correlation between anxiety and consumers' food choices, some of which have entered the realm of obsession (Instragramming food, following strict dietary lifestyles, etc.)

In her research in collaboration with Dataessential, which surveyed 1,100 Americans across the US across age groups and socio- and racial background, Turow-Paul found that consumers, especially Gen Z and millennials, are leading many food trends.

According to the research, 84% of Gen Z and 86% of Millennials said they are passionate about food.

They are also the loneliest and most anxious generations on record, Turow-Paul's research revealed.

"My big question is why?,"​ said Turow-Paul.

Technology and anxiety 

First, she looked closely at the link between technology and food choices.

"A lot of people aren’t taking the time to understand just how drastically our lives have been impacted by these technological advances,"​ she said. 

"Millennials are the guinea pigs for lives tethered to screens, and Gen Z doesn’t know a world without Snapchat, texting, and 24/7 news notifications.

"Our phones have become an appendage; it’s become a critical part of our existence. I think it’s really important to look at what the impact has been on wellbeing," ​she said.

Even before COVID-19, consumers were already anxious about several things from food safety to climate change, and being constantly on our phones reinforces a "bad news cycle"​ that becomes nearly impossible to escape and our feeling of control over the world around us feels like it's slipping away, said Turow-Paul.


"It turns out those who are most attached to their technologies were more anxious than the general population."

It's also a massive time suck, she said. According to Turow-Paul, unlocking our phones is the third most common repetitive behavior for humans behind breathing and blinking.

"It also eats up our time and causes us to be less productive with our time,"​ she said, heightening the feeling of anxiety for many.

This, she believes, is the root cause behind the macro trend of snacking among younger generations.

"In the study, we found that most people feel they just don’t have time to eat, especially those who are snacking."

Food creates order

"When we feel anxious, we have a deep desire to create order out of that chaos,"​ noted Turow-Paul, who through her research has seen people take back control of their lives through their food choices such as following certain dietary health trends (e.g. gluten-free, Whole30, paleo, keto, etc.)

"Another way people are trying to mitigate anxiety is through restriction. People are really attracted to the idea of putting up guardrails,"​ she said. The amount of consumers following some sort of dietary pattern or lifestyle as a way to create order and manage stress has significantly increased over the past several years, according to Turow-Paul.

"There was one other group that beat out the tech-tethered cohort when it came to worrying, and that was people who we call ‘pro-social dieters’, which are people who are restricting their diet in some sort of way."


Following a diet, if not for medical reasons, which excludes certain ingredients such as wheat or sugar, eliminates the overwhelming feeling of too many choices, a simple way to remedy stress for consumers, Turow-Paul noted. 

It also creates a sense of community and belonging for many. In her research, Turow-Paul found that 65% of the general population felt lonely, and belonging to a health tribe can alleviate this feeling.

"Food has never been more important than it is today. People are using food as a way to form a community,"​ she said, who said that people are using food as a way to exercise their value systems and align with other like-minded individuals. 

"You'll see that at a vegan speed dating or even a gluten-free or Whole30 blog,"​ Turow-Paul said. 

Sustainability can deliver on many consumer needs

"People are using food to do good. We’re seeing this throughout the industry,"​ said Turow-Paul, noting that sustainability can be an effective way to meet consumers' three core desires for control, community, and purpose.

"Most sustainable goods these days are targeting people's need for purpose. The reality is that sustainable practices and sustainable foods can deliver on all of our needs,"​ she said. 

"A lot of times people want the product they buy to give back in some way. We’re definitely going to being seeing much more of this in terms of socially-just products."


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