Highly processed foods are addictive substances, says University of Michigan study

Highly processed foods like French fries are as addictive as cigarettes, say researchers. (Pixabay)

ANN ARBOR – Are highly processed foods addictive?

A topic of debate for years, researchers at the University of Michigan and Virginia Tech set out to find the answer based on scientific criteria.

For the study, they used a U.S. Surgeon General’s report from 1988 that classified tobacco as an addictive substance, and applied it to food.

The results? Yes, food loaded with added fats and refined carbohydrates can be considered addictive substances.

The researchers team said that addictive foods like cookies, ice cream, potato chips and French fries could play a key role in contributing to public health issues related to a food environment saturated with accessible, heavily marketed and cheap highly processed foods.

The researched, performed by lead author and U-M associate professor of psychology Ashley Gearhardt and assistant professor of biomedical research at Virginia Tech Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, was recently published in the Addiction Journal.

According to a release about the study, highly processed foods meet the same criteria used when identifying tobacco 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

“Of note, there is no biomarker in the brain that tells us whether something is addictive or not,” Gearhardt said in a release. “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.”

Similar to tobacco products, highly processed foods contain thousands of chemicals which add to their addictive potential, said the researchers.

“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,” Gearhardt, who also directs U-M’s Food and Addiction Science and Treatment lab, said in a statement. “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.”

Poor diets loaded with highly processed foods are now responsible for as many preventable deaths as cigarettes, said the researchers. The way they are marketed to consumers as hard to resist and intensely rewarding is also a contributing factor, they said.

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

To read the full study, click here.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.