Increasingly associated with an unhealthy diet, most Americans now get the bulk of their calories from highly addictive and highly profitable ultra-processed foods (UPFs, aka highly processed foods, or HPFs). A recent study—which, parallel to big pharma, underscores another avenue of greed and corruption targeting our nation’s health—revealed that highly processed foods like potato chips and ice cream are just as addictive as alcohol or nicotine. What makes UPFs so addictive? The main reason is that, with little digestive effort, they deliver fats and carbs to the gut much faster than minimally processed foods. That in itself may not sound so bad, but void of nutritional value, UPFs are so altered that it can often be difficult to recognize the underlying ingredients.
These convenient, affordable, highly profitable, intensely flavored, and aggressively marketed available everywhere foods are essentially “concoctions of concoctions,” as aptly noted by Bee Wilson of The Guardian. They are engineered from ingredients that are already highly refined, such as cheap vegetable oils, heavily refined flours, whey proteins, and sugars, which are then whipped up into a synthetic food that is made appetizing with the help of industrial additives such as emulsifiers, artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. More often than not, these unsafe foods contain genetically modified ingredients that are laden with pesticides. Noting the difference between minimally processed foods and highly processed foods, infectious disease doctor Dr. Chris van Tulleken explained:
“If a food’s wrapped in plastic and it’s got something that you don’t typically find in a domestic kitchen, then it’s almost certainly an ultra-processed food. We know that this stuff is addictive. We know it’s now as harmful as cigarettes in terms of the global effects.”
The study, conducted by the University of Michigan and Virginia Tech and published in Addiction, used the criteria established for labeling tobacco products as addictive substances to define HPFs as being highly addictive. In 1988, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report identifying tobacco products as addictive based on their ability to meet three primary criteria (with a fourth added later) based on their ability to 1) cause highly controlled or compulsive use, 2) cause psychoactive (i.e. mood-altering) effects via their effect on the brain, 3) reinforce behavior, and, 4) trigger strong urges or craving.
According to study authors Ashley Gearhardt, lead author and U-M associate professor of psychology, and Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, assistant professor at Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech, the addictive potential for foods such as cookies, ice cream, potato chips, and french fries may be a critical factor contributing to the elevated public health costs associated with “a food environment dominated by cheap, accessible, and heavily marketed highly processed foods.” The authors concluded that highly processed foods meet the same criteria used to identify cigarettes as an addictive substance:
-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 similar magnitude as the nicotine in tobacco products.
-They are highly reinforcing.
-They trigger intense urges and cravings.
Without question, poor diets overpowered by HPFs now contribute to preventable deaths on par with cigarettes. They also lead to obesity and depression. The researchers remarked that, like tobacco products, the food industry schemes their HPFs to be “intensely rewarding and hard to resist.” Gearhardt noted that there is no biomarker in the brain to tell people whether something is addictive or not. Thus, identifying that tobacco products were addictive “really boiled down to these four criteria,” which have stood up to years of scientific evaluation. Pointing out that when the Surgeon General’s report was released more than thirty years ago, tobacco products were the largest cause of preventable death. Gearhardt added, “highly processed foods meet every single one of these criteria.”
Indeed, like industrial tobacco products, which contain thousands of chemicals, including nicotine, HPFs contain complex substances that cannot be simplified into a single chemical agent through a precise central mechanism. Gearhardt remarked that despite the damning report thirty years ago regarding tobacco, many smokers (addicted, no doubt) and tobacco manufacturers refused to accept their harmful and addictive nature. The delay in taking action with practical strategies to address the public health crisis around tobacco cost millions of lives.
Aware of the damage being done by HPFs and striving for immediate action to address the contaminated food crisis as our nation’s health deteriorates, DiFeliceantonio commented that it is time to “stop thinking about highly processed foods just as foods, but instead as highly refined substances that can be addictive.” In a noble move looking out for America’s children, whom the Biden administration and Big Pharma have sorely neglected during the pandemic, Gearhardt added:
“When we realized tobacco products were addictive, it made us realize that smoking wasn’t just an adult choice, but that people were getting hooked and couldn’t stop even when they really wanted to.
This same thing appears to be happening with highly processed foods and this is particularly concerning because kids are a major target of advertising for these products.”