Highly Processed Foods Aren't Just Unhealthy, They May Be Addictive, Study Finds

Food may not be the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the word "addiction." In a new study, a pair of researchers determined that highly processed foods may not just be unhealthy, but could also be considered addictive, just like tobacco.

While almost all kinds of food have to be processed to some degree, highly processed foods (HPF) are the ones that, while convenient and often very palatable, tend to contain excessive amounts of additional ingredients such as sodium, sugar and saturated fat.

Some examples of these are sugary drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals, meat products such as hot dogs, instant soups and boxed pasta products.

It has been speculated that these types of food are explicitly designed so people would overeat them and crave more. But do they qualify to be considered addictive?

For their new study, published in the current issue of Addiction, a pair of researchers had a closer look at HPF and whether they qualify as addicting based on the scientific criteria from the 1988 Surgeon General's report on the addictiveness of tobacco.

The four criteria are as follows: controlled or compulsive use wherein the user finds it difficult to quit, has psychoactive impacts on the brain, reinforced behavior, and has strong urges or cravings triggered.

These four criteria were used in 1988 to establish that tobacco was addictive, the University of Michigan (U-M) noted in a news release. And in the new study, using the same standards, the researchers found evidence that HPFs may be, too.

"Identifying that tobacco products were addictive really boiled down to these four criteria, [which] have stood up to decades of scientific evaluation," study lead author, Ashley Gearhardt of U-M, said in the news release. "Highly processed foods meet every single one of these criteria."

HPF's potential for being addictive may be a key factor for its high public health costs, the researchers said.

In the past, for instance, delayed actions to address the issue of tobacco "cost millions of lives." And now, "poor diets dominated by HPFs are contributing to preventable deaths to a comparable degree as tobacco products," the researchers wrote.

Such findings could help in creating actions to address the issue. For instance, understanding HPFs addictive potential may perhaps even lead to treatments to curb its compulsive intake, the study added.

"Importantly, if the science supports that HPFs are not just unhealthy, but addictive, this challenges the assertion that excessive HPF intake is purely a matter of choice," the researchers wrote.

And, unlike with smoking, "we all need to eat," they said, making it an all the more crucial matter. Furthermore, children are said to be "a major target" of the advertising for such products. So, such findings could help increase the "scrutiny of industrial practices in the development and marketing of HPFs (particularly to children)."

"It is time to stop thinking about highly processed foods just as food, but instead as highly refined substances that can be addictive," study author Alexandra DiFeliceantonio said as per U-M.

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