Junk Food Can Be Literally Addictive

Junk Food Can Be Literally Addictive

It should come as no surprise then that many of today’s unhealthy foods were brought to you by Big Tobacco

Supermakert potato chip aisle

Let’s get this out of the way: Nearly all food is processed to some extent. Even if you're cooking from scratch, you probably use, say, flour or salt or olive oi—none of which are in their raw states. But ultra-processed food (UPF) is very different. These contain industrial substances and additives that you won't find in your pantry. In his bestselling book, Ultra-Processed People, Chris van Tulleken quotes the Brazilian scientist Fernanda Rauber as saying: “Most UPF is not even really food ... It's an industrially produced edible substance.” Sounds kinda gross, right? But often, it tastes delicious—because it's been engineered to be irresistible.

And if it feels like it's hard to quit, you're not wrong. According to Scientific American, daily snacking on processed foods rewires the brain's reward circuits. Cravings for tasty meals light up the brain just like cravings for cocaine do, prompting some researchers to ask whether products such as fries or cookies can trigger addiction akin to that associated with drugs or alcohol. And new evidence suggests that junk foods “resemble drugs of misuse in a number of disturbing ways.”

Interestingly, the Washington Post reports that tobacco companies may have actually helped get people addicted to processed foods using the same strategy they used to hook people on cigarettes by making their products more addictive. How? Well, back in the '80s, tobacco giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds acquired major food companies Kraft, General Foods and Nabisco, allowing Big Tobacco to dominate the country's food supply and reap billions in sales from popular all-American brands such as Oreo cookies, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Lunchables.

By the 2000s, the tobacco giants spun off their food companies and largely exited the food industry—but not before leaving a lasting legacy on the foods that we eat. New research, published in the journal Addiction, focuses on the rise of “hyper-palatable” foods, which contain potent combinations of fat, sodium, sugar and other additives that can drive people to not only crave them, but also overeat them. Researchers found that in the decades when the tobacco giants owned the food companies, the snacks that they sold were far more likely to be hyper-palatable than similar foods not owned by tobacco companies.

And in the past three decades, hyper-palatable foods have spread rapidly into the food supply, coinciding with a surge in obesity and diet-related diseases. Two recent large studies showed that it significantly raises the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. These studies are just the latest in a growing body of research that documents just how harmful UPF is to health. Of course, they're hard to avoid, but as long as we think of them as what they are—calorie-rich, nutrient-poor treats and nothing else—we should be alright.

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Federal regulators are starting to take a closer look at ultra-processed foods and their relationship to weight gain as part of their review for the next round of dietary guidelines.

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