Highly Processed Food as Addictive as Tobacco, say Scientists

Scientists conducted an analysis of the addictive potential of highly processed food using the criteria used in a 1988 U.S. Surgeon General’s report that established that tobacco was addictive. Based on the criteria set for tobacco, the study findings indicate that highly processed foods can indeed be addictive. In fact, according to the study findings, highly processed foods can be as addictive as tobacco.

The researchers stated that given the addictive potential for food such as potato chips, cookies, ice cream and French fries, this may be a key factor contributing to the high public health costs associated with a food environment dominated by cheap, accessible and heavily marketed highly processed foods.

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“It is time to stop thinking about highly processed foods just as food, but instead as highly refined substances that can be addictive.”

-Dr. Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, researcher and assistant professor, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech

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young woman eating salty popcorn with closed eyes

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Highly Processed Foods Meet Same Criterion for Addiction as Tobacco

The criterion used to determine if substances (such as tobacco and highly processed foods) are addictive offers evidence 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

“Identifying that tobacco products were addictive really boiled down to these four criteria, (which) have stood up to decades of scientific evaluation. Highly processed foods meet every single one of these criteria…

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.”

-Dr. Ashley Gearhardt, researchers and associate professor of psychology, University of Michigan  (source)


Journal Reference: Gearhardt, A. & DiFeliceantonio, A. Highly Processed Foods Can Be Considered Addictive Substances Based on Established Scientific Criteria, Addiction Journal, 2022.  Study pdf