The Disturbing Reason Research Is Comparing Highly Processed Foods To Tobacco

Coca-Cola, Oreos, Lays, and Frosted Flakes make up some of the most popular highly processed foods that line grocery store aisles across the country and abroad. Though these nostalgic, quintessential American treats might be satisfyingly crispy, bubbly, and sweet, a new study likens them to drugs, like tobacco.

It's not news that highly processed "junk" foods aren't "good for you" and should be enjoyed in moderation because many contain hydrogenated oils, preservatives, artificial sugars and flavors, and more (via Healthline). The qualities of highly processed foods and the effects they have on the body were studied in humans and rats, and when compared to that of tobacco, some strong similarities were identified.

Authors of this new study, Ashley N. Gearhardt, psychologist and director of the University of Michigan's Food and Addiction Science and Treatment Lab, and Alexandra G. DiFeliceantonio, an appetitive neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, reveal that some of your favorite treats can be considered addictive. Tobacco-level addictive. By addictive, we aren't talking the commonly thrown around phrase, "these are so good, they're addicting!" The research conducted by the Society for the Study of Addiction outline not just "if" highly processed foods are addictive, but the "how" and "why," using criteria set by the 1988 US Surgeon General report on the health consequences of tobacco.

The criteria to determine addictiveness

Line by line, the study provides evidence of the effects highly processed foods has on the body, comparing them with other addictive substances, like tobacco, opioids, and amphetamines. Authors Ashley N. Gearhardt and Alexandra G. DiFeliceantonio did this by using three criteria set in the 1988 US Surgeon General report: compulsive use, psychoactivity, and reinforcing.

In tests, highly processed foods performed much like addictive drugs in triggering compulsive intake, like binge eating, even in the face of health consequences. The kicker is in a lab test where rats withstood shock punishment better when rewarded with feed containing corn syrup than feed containing methamphetamine.

Concerning psychoactivity, after consuming highly processed foods, dopamine increases in the reward center of the brain at a similar magnitude that nicotine does. "The combination of refined carbohydrates (such as sugar) and fat appears to have a supra-additive effect on reward encoding in the striatum in humans," stated the study.

In terms of reinforcing, the reinforcing nature of highly processed foods was found to be higher than that of tobacco, which refers to people eating past the point of satiety. Wanting and seeking highly processed foods after a satiating meal touches on a fourth criteria: cravings and strong urges. Highly processed foods met this fourth criteria, too, showing that they "largely overlap" the neural substrates that reveal cravings for other addictive substances.

So what does this all mean?

The US Surgeon General reports on smoking and tobacco were considered landmark publications that sparked regulatory changes and public health initiatives. Authors Ashley N. Gearhardt and Alexandra G. DiFeliceantonio aim to advance treatments and public policy health initiatives to decrease the consumption of highly processed foods and destigmatize this addiction in light of their findings.

Much like interventions that were enacted with regards to tobacco — in the form of taxes, restrictions, and raising of awareness of its effects — this study pushes that similar ones be enacted for highly processed foods. The study takes this comparison one step further to show that tobacco companies, like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, purchased food and beverage companies and use similar sales tactics to target children and demographics by racial and ethnicity.

In their closing statement, Gearhardt and DiFeliceantonio write, "In the past 40 years, [highly processed foods] have become familiar substances that dominate the food environment, but we cannot lose the saliency of their potential to be addictive and harmful."