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.
By Paolo DeAndreis
Nov. 17, 2022 15:58 UTC

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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