By Martin Barillas
ANN AR BOR, Michigan
New research reveals that certain highly processed foods may be addictive, when measured by the same standards set for tobacco that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in recent decades.
Professor Ashley Gearhardt, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, said in an interview that potato chips, cookies, ice cream, and French fries may be causing rising human costs when measured by obesity and diabetes rates that have spiked in just the last forty years.
Three decades ago, tobacco use was the largest cause of preventable death. However, the federal government subsidized tobacco producers and even encouraged overseas sales. Politicians and businesses resisted restrictions on tobacco sales despite scientific and medical findings.
“This delayed the implementation of effective strategies to address this public health crisis,which cost millions of lives,” said Gearhardt, who directs U-M’s Food and Addiction Science and Treatment lab.
Ultimately, all 46 states successfully sued Philip Morris Inc., R. J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, and Lorillard, and won a payout in 1998 of $206 billion in compensation for medical care related to smoking. Tobacco companies also agreed to either cease or curtail certain marketing practices, especially to minors.
However, the U.S. has continued to subsidize tobacco to the tune of $1.9 billion from 1995 to 2020. And the federal government continues to subsidize cheap, accessible, and heavily marketed foods processed by corporate giants such as KraftHeinz and Mondelez.
“Of note, there is no biomarker in the brain that tells us whether something is addictive or not,” Gearhardt said. But decades ago, researchers found that tobacco is addictive on the basis of four firmly established criteria determined by the U.S. Surgeon General in 1988.
What Gearhardt and fellow researcher Alexandra DiFeliceantonio of Virginia Tech found is that highly processed foods also share the same criteria.
According to their paper, there is a scientific consensus that addictive substances increase dopamine: a substance in the nervous system that transmits nerve signals and plays a role in how we feel pleasure. While nicotine causes a more modest increase in dopamine than alcohol or amphetamine, the authors note, it is “still capable of triggering compulsive intake and changing mood.”
“Based on the standards above, [highly processed foods] can be considered psychoactive substances…capable of increasing positive affect and reducing negative affect,” they write.
For example, intake of white chocolate and cocoa chocolate is associated “with ‘euphoria’ ratings on a measure of psychoactive drug effects of 7.0 and 6.4, respectively,” they wrote.
Their research, published in the current edition of “Addiction,” claims that highly processed foodsare as addictive as cigarettes. According to a release:
• “They trigger compulsive use where people are unable to quit or cut down (even in the
face of life-threatening diseases like diabetes and heart disease).
• They can change the way we feel and cause changes in the brain that are of a similarmagnitude as the nicotine in tobacco products.
• They are highly reinforcing.
• They trigger intense urges and cravings.”
Gearhardt and DiFeliceantonio found that highly processed foods (HPFs) deliver ultra-high doses of fat and carbohydrates that are key to potential addiction. But healthier choices, such as nourishing vegetables and fruit, don’t have such addictive potential.
“When we realized tobacco products were addictive, it made us realize that smoking wasn’t justan adult choice, but that people were getting hooked and couldn’t stop even when they reallywanted to. This same thing appears to be happening with highly processed foods and this isparticularly concerning because kids are a major target of advertising for these products,”Gearhardt said.
In an interview, Gearhardt revealed, “Based on what we were able to scientifically conclude, that tobacco is addictive, these processed foods meet the criteria for highly addictive substances, not just in the ‘chocoholic’ kind of way, but in a real way, given the amount of harm and death associated with them.”
Gearhardt and DiFeliceantonio claim that diets dominated by HPFs contribute to preventable deaths on parwith cigarettes. Likening the design of these foods to be tasty and hard to resist, much like the ingredients tobacco companies added to cigarettes, they believe the time has come to stop thinking about HPFs just as food, but instead as highly refined addictive substances.
“I’m really passionate about this. These are real people who are suffering,” Gearhardt said, reflecting on her former clinical practice. “We are having some breakthroughs with medications that show some promising data. But we aren’t able to afford giving everyone these meds. The 3-month injections are super-expensive. Forty percent of Americans have obesity. We can’t afford that,” she said.
The paper suggests some actions government and businesses can take to address food addiction. It points out that tobacco companies Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds not only bought food companies, such as Nabisco and Kraft-General Foods, but also applied their tobacco playbooks to “increase the profits from their food and beverage portfolios, including the use of flavored additives and marketing strategies to target children and racial/ethnic minorities.”
According to Gearhardt and DiFeliceantonio, by understanding that intake of highlyprocessed foods (HPF) are addictive could lead to new treatments such as behavioral and medical means to target compulsive behaviors.
“Importantly, if the science supports that HPFs are not just unhealthy, but addictive, this challengesthe assertion that excessive HPF intake is purely a matter of choice,” they write, adding: “This may increase scrutiny of industrial practices in the developmentand marketing of HPFs (particularly to children).”
Decades ago, tobacco companies sought to undermine public confidence in the scientific data about tobacco addiction, thus standing in the way of preventative measures such as forbidding sales and marketing to minors. Tobacco products had become so familiar to consumers that they had lost their “saliency”: in other words, the health danger they posed went unheeded.
But unlike smoking, the authors note, “we all need to eat.” They concluded: “HPFs have become familiar substances that dominate the food environment, but we cannot lose the saliency of their potential to beaddictive and harmful.”
One area that could be addressed a prices supports to certain sectors of agriculture, Gearhardt said in the interview. Supposedly intended to aid the poor, farm subsidies are about to enter their tenth decade and, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, and have amounted to $424 billion from 1995 to 2020. Subsidies for corn alone amounted to over $115 billion during the same period.
Archer Daniels Midland, an American food processing and commodities trading company which some have termed as a recipient of “corporate welfare,” for example, received over $414 million in subsidies in 2021 alone.
A 2004 paper by Scott Fields, appearing “Environmental Health Perspectives,” questioned these subsidies, which supposedly “stabilize crop prices, keep farmers farming, and provide U.S. families with an affordable, reliable supply of food.” Fields wrote: “But these programs may have had an unintended side effect. Rather than keep Americans healthy, critics say, these policies have contributed to today’s obesity pandemic and other nutrition problems as well.”