Why Do People Buy Weird Food Before a Hurricane?

CC BY 2.0. Scott Ehardt

Hurricane warning? Quick, stock up on emergency Pop-Tarts, vanilla vodka, and Pringles?

When New York City was hunkering down for the arrival of Hurricane Irene, I bought instant espresso and sweetened condensed milk to ensure I would be caffeinated in the face of disaster. That makes sense. I bought various non-perishables that would nourish us, and water and red wine, of course. But the strange thing is, I bought Snack Pack pudding and Nilla Wafers as well, to the curious delight of my daughters who were unaccustomed to mom indulging in sugary processed food. What good would junk food be when we might be in need of good nutrients? Just a panicked one-off? Apparently not, because when warnings for Sandy came, packaged pudding and processed cookies made a repeat appearance.

I thought I was just buying some secret weapons to distract the kids in case things got really dodgy, but as it turns out, I am not alone. In writing about the psychology of hurricane preparation, Aditi Shrikant at Vox refers to research by Elyria Kemp about the heightened emotions people have in the lead-up to a storm, and what they consume because of them. Shrikant writes:

"The most common emotional responses were anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness. And the most common purchases? Unsurprisingly, bottled water, batteries, and flashlights, but also cookies, chips, and alcohol. 'These negative emotional experiences lead them to not only purchase the necessities one may need during a hurricane; they also would buy hedonic products,' Kemp says."

Bingo! In this generally junk-food-free and minimal-plastic household, pudding in polymeric cups is definitely a hedonic product.

She goes on to explain that in fact, the proclivity to stock up on junk food before a potential disaster has been studied a lot. I am quite unoriginal, it turns out. “The tendency of those bracing for a hurricane to stockpile junk food has been well-documented. In 2004, Walmart reported that it orders extra strawberry Pop-Tarts before a hurricane because sales spike significantly.”

While pudding and Pop-Tarts might not seem like the smartest strategy for surviving a hurricane, there’s more to getting through a disaster than wholesome nutrients. There is the sanity factor to keep in mind; according to Kemp’s research, people go for high-fat and perishable foods (milk, bread, eggs) to encourage calm and comfort, not because they think they are necessarily practical purchases.

“It’s called emotion regulation consumption – the idea is if someone is stuck waiting for a stressful situation like a hurricane to befall them, consuming the foods they like can lower stress and make them happier. ‘Positive emotions have the ability to undo the effects of negative emotions, so that’s why we purchase these products,’ Kemp says.”

So if you find yourself at the store stockpiling for an upcoming storm ... and find yourself inexplicably drawn to the Pop-Tart aisle, don’t despair. You are not alone. Remember that comfort can come in strange packages – even little plastic* cups of pudding. That said, don't forget the batteries and water.

*Note: This may be the only time ever on TreeHugger when we won’t be preachy about plastic.