Is the Recession Making You Fat?

America has found a cheap escape from its current malaise: dessert. Kathleen Willcox says the sugar industry is exploding—and so will waistlines.

07.21.09 10:53 PM ET

Here’s some relevant trivia best-known to etymologists: stressed = desserts spelled backward. America’s collective need for cheap splurges in times of financial anxiety has turned it on to a fattening fix: low-end candy and desserts. Very good for Hershey’s, very bad for America’s ever-expanding waistline.

Just a year ago, the country was in the midst of a high-end dessert renaissance of sorts, but as the economy has tanked, so has a desire for mystery confections over a cheap sugar fix. The D-List divas of dessert are storming the stage. After all, during times of intense emotional duress, how many people would truly prefer to nosh a fungus-infused organic dark chocolate (Vosges Chocolate Organic Enchanted Mushroom candy bars, $8.50 per 3 oz. bar) instead of a good, old-fashioned blob of fake peanut butter smothered in milk chocolate (Reese’s peanut butter cups, $1.19 per 1.5 oz package)?

Only a select few.

Life in Candyland, USA hasn’t been this sweet since the Great Depression, when classic delectables—from Tootsie Pops to Rocky Road—were foisted on a grateful public desperate for a respite from the grim grind of their lives.

While sales of high-end dark chocolate spiked 35 percent to $829 million between 2007 and 2008, the outlook doesn’t look as toothsome for dark this year—sales have only inched up 2.2 percent, according to Nielsen Co. Meanwhile, Hershey’s reported a 51.4 percent rise in profits at the end of last year and a 20 percent jump in first-quarter profit this year. Other mid-range chocolate producers reported similar results: Cadbury’s profit grew by 30 percent in 2008 while Nestle’s announced a respectable 10.9 percent spike.

Eating bargain-basement chocolate may temporarily boost the mood-elevating brain chemical serotonin, but any temporary buzz will be swiftly stymied when it’s time to step on the scale. A report released by the Trust for America’s Health found that obesity rates increased in 23 states last year and fell in none. The report predicts that economic woes will only exacerbate the problem as food prices—especially for nutritious foods—rise in lockstep with depression, anxiety, and stress, all linked to obesity.

Meanwhile, life in Candyland, USA hasn’t been this sweet since the Great Depression. Countless classics, from Tootsie Pops to Rocky Road ice cream, were concocted and foisted upon a grateful 1930s public desperate for a brief respite from the grim grind of their lives.

This time around, though, there seems to be less creativity (aside from cheap, derivative concoctions like the New York’s Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, run by musician Doug Quint, who adds sugar-rush inducing Nilla Wafers and maple syrup to his soft serve). As Hershey’s, the proud purveyors of all-American gems like Payday and Whoppers malted milk balls, puts it: Change is bad. So what’s good? Well, judging from sales numbers, those Depression-era treats we noshed as children, perhaps invoking simpler times when popping a Pez mattered more than polishing a résumé.

The reasoning is hazy, but the results are clear: Organic dark chocolate truffles stuffed with seasonally appropriate fillings like lemon-basil ganache, at $4 a piece? Out. Hastily grabbed, half-broken candy corns ($2.50 a pound)? Hot.

“People are looking for immediate gratification,” says Jerry Cohen, the owner of Economy Candy, a New York wholesaler founded during the Great Depression. “Rent’s due, the telephone bill’s due. My customers aren’t stocking up on the high-end fancy chocolates for dinner parties and gifts anymore. They want happy food that will give them a bright spot and a simple, affordable treat in the middle of the day.”

Such trends are mirrored at restaurants, too. “People want a different type of sweet than they wanted a year or two ago,” says Jansen Chan, pastry chef at Oceana, a top seafood restaurant in Manhattan. “Right now, it’s all about comfort and chocolate. A few years ago, going out to eat was a big experiment and people were willing to try all kinds of things, but now, they really think about the value of a dollar… Our strongest-selling desserts are still something familiar, but with a unique twist, like our deconstructed riff on the chocolate-chip cookie and glass of milk.”

And while restaurant sales tank, overall, there’s one glimmer of hope.

Darren Tristano, of Technomic, a restaurant-industry research and consulting firm, says people will trade in full dinners for smaller treats like Pinkberry and Red Mango, two fast-expanding frozen yogurt chains that have managed to recently secure millions of dollars in funding in the last few years—and now pass for health food on America’s recession palate.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Kathleen Willcox is a freelance writer and a student at the Institute of Culinary Education.