Some Ultra-Processed Foods Are Addictive, Like Tobacco

Foods high in refined carbohydrates and added fats trigger some of the hallmarks of addictive behaviors in consumers.
Nov. 17, 2022
Paolo DeAndreis

Ultra-processed foods com­monly avail­able in food retail­ers in most coun­tries share some of the addic­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics of tobacco, new research sug­gests.

An opin­ion and debate arti­cle pub­lished by the Society for the Study of Addiction inves­ti­gated if and how con­sum­ing ultra-processed food might lead to a life-threat­en­ing addic­tion.

Previous research has shown that fre­quent, high-vol­ume con­sump­tion of ultra-processed food has been linked with an increase in heart attacks, strokes and pre­ma­ture death.

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The increas­ingly appar­ent neg­a­tive impacts of ultra-processed food on health prompted sev­eral author­i­ties and researchers to rec­om­mend that com­pa­nies indi­cate whether a prod­uct is ultra-processed on its labels.

Now, researchers are inves­ti­gat­ing whether an addic­tive-eat­ing phe­no­type may exist, par­tic­u­larly involv­ing foods with refined car­bo­hy­drates and added fats (HPFs).


The lack of sci­en­tif­i­cally grounded cri­te­ria to eval­u­ate the addic­tive nature of HPFs has hin­dered the res­o­lu­tion of this debate,” researchers wrote.

They said evi­dence of an exist­ing phe­no­type exists that reflects the hall­marks of addic­tion” in some con­sumers, such as loss of con­trol over intake, intense crav­ings, inabil­ity to cut down and con­tin­ued use despite neg­a­tive con­se­quences.

Additionally, exces­sive food intake has been linked with symp­toms of other addic­tive dis­or­ders, includ­ing low qual­ity of life or adverse reac­tions to weight-loss treat­ments.

The study’s authors also acknowl­edged that other researchers tend to believe that food addic­tion does not depend on the type of food but on the act of eat­ing, mak­ing it impos­si­ble to clas­sify spe­cific food as addic­tive.

HPFs are evo­lu­tion­ar­ily novel prod­ucts made pos­si­ble through mod­ern food tech­nol­ogy that pro­vide refined and rapidly deliv­ered pri­mary rein­forcers, specif­i­cally calo­ries, in the form of refined car­bo­hy­drates and added fats,” researchers wrote.

The debate that remains con­cerns whether a refined and opti­mized deliv­ery sys­tem of calo­ries can pro­duce com­par­a­tive effects to a refined and opti­mized deliv­ery sys­tem of addic­tive drugs,” they added.

In 1988, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report iden­ti­fy­ing tobacco prod­ucts as addic­tive based on sci­en­tific cri­te­ria, includ­ing their abil­ity to cause highly con­trolled or com­pul­sive use, psy­choac­tive or mood-alter­ing effects and abil­ity to rein­force behav­ior.

The study explained how HPFs are com­plex sub­stances that are psy­choac­tive, highly rein­forc­ing, strongly craved and con­sumed com­pul­sively,” sim­i­lar to tobacco prod­ucts.

The foods that peo­ple report being most likely to con­sume in an addic­tive man­ner are all HPFs that deliver both refined car­bo­hy­drates and added fats,” the researchers wrote, cit­ing choco­late, ice cream, French fries and pizza as rel­e­vant exam­ples.

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HPF foods high in refined car­bo­hy­drates with­out high lev­els of fat, such as break­fast cereal, gummy candy and soft drinks, are also asso­ci­ated with an addic­tive-eat­ing phe­no­type.

These HPF foods deliver high doses of refined car­bo­hy­drates and fats, which the researchers described as unnat­ural” because they depend on sig­nif­i­cant changes to the food matrix dur­ing pro­cess­ing that removes ingre­di­ents that would slow down the eat­ing rate and absorp­tion (e.g., water and fiber).”

Given their nutri­ent den­sity and quick bioavail­abil­ity, HPFs acti­vate the body’s nat­ural reward sys­tem through the gut-brain axis.

Researchers said the exact dose of HPFs required to trig­ger an addic­tion is cur­rently unknown but added the same is true of nico­tine.

This is an impor­tant area of future research that may aid in the refor­mu­la­tion of HPFs to reduce addic­tive poten­tial,” they wrote.

According to the sci­en­tists, another area of research that should be explored is the role played by the many food addi­tives that mod­ify the taste, smell, tex­ture or mouth-feel of food.

The addi­tives might not trig­ger addic­tive behav­ior by them­selves. Still, the researchers believe that they may con­tribute to the addic­tive-eat­ing phe­no­type when con­sumed with refined car­bo­hy­drates and added fats, sim­i­lar to what hap­pens with the addi­tives in tobacco prod­ucts.

Scientific advances have now iden­ti­fied the abil­ity of tobacco prod­ucts to trig­ger strong urges or crav­ings as another impor­tant indi­ca­tor of addic­tive poten­tial. Here, we pro­pose that these… cri­te­ria pro­vide sci­en­tif­i­cally valid bench­marks that can be used to eval­u­ate the addic­tive­ness of HPFs,” the researchers wrote.

They con­cluded that HPFs could meet the cri­te­ria to be con­sid­ered addic­tive sub­stances if the stan­dard set for tobacco prod­ucts is con­sid­ered.

The addic­tive poten­tial of HPFs may be a key fac­tor con­tribut­ing to the high pub­lic health costs asso­ci­ated with a food envi­ron­ment dom­i­nated by cheap, acces­si­ble and heav­ily mar­keted HPFs,” the sci­en­tists wrote.

Finally, they empha­sized how pre­vi­ous research has shown that poor diets dom­i­nated by HPFs are con­tribut­ing to pre­ventable deaths to a com­pa­ra­ble degree as tobacco prod­ucts.”


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