Some of your favorite foods might be engineered to keep you returning for more. New research suggests when major food manufacturers were owned by big tobacco, they flooded the market with dozens of so-called hyper-palatable foods (HPF)—those with the precise amounts of fat, salt, and sugar that cause people to overeat them.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Kansas, concluded that between 1988 and 2001, tobacco-owned U.S. food companies produced more highly-palatable foods than those not owned by tobacco giants. The findings, published in the journal Addiction, suggest the tobacco industry was the driving force behind the rise of hyper-palatable foods today.
In a press release, Tera Fazzino, the lead author and an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Kansas, says the data sends a clear message about the dangers of hyper-palatable foods and the role tobacco companies played—although it does not presume intent.
“But what we can say is there’s evidence to indicate tobacco companies were consistently involved with owning and developing hyperpalatable foods during the time that they were leading our food system. Their involvement was selective in nature and different from the companies that didn’t have a parent tobacco-company ownership” she said.
Jell-O to Teddy Grahams
Between 1988 and 2001, two of the world’s biggest tobacco companies, Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds, had a significant foothold in the American food manufacturing scene. Philip Morris bought and combined Kraft and General Foods, which produced well-loved foods, like Kraft Mac & Cheese, Jell-O, and Lunchables, while Morris took hold of Nabisco, which made popular snacks, including Chips Ahoy, Teddy Grahams, and Ritz crackers.
Hyper-palatable foods weren’t widespread until 1988 when tobacco took them over, which suggests there may have been a “product reformulation” under new ownership, according to the study.
“We found that tobacco companies selectively disseminated hyper-palatable foods into the food supply,” Fazzino told The Washington Post. “It’s important for people to understand where these foods came from and who was responsible for putting them into our food system in a way that saturates the environment.”
Specifically, the study looked at 105 tobacco-owned foods and 587 non-tobacco-owned foods. They found tobacco-owned foods were 29% more likely to be fat and sodium hyper-palatable foods and 80% more likely to be carbohydrate and sodium hyper-palatable foods than non-tobacco-owned foods.
Around the same time between 1988 to 2012, the prevalence of metabolic syndrome, a product of obesity which increases people’s risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, rose across the nation for all socio-demographic groups, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The risks of hyper-palatable foods
While the health dangers of a diet high in ultra-processed foods are clear—high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity—the risks associated with hyper-palatable foods are not as the term was only recently defined.
Initial research shows hyper-palatable foods promote cravings, which can lead to increased calorie intake regardless of whether the overall diet is low-fat, low-sugar, ultra-processed, or unprocessed. Therefore, hyper-palatable foods can increase obesity risk, which is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
Hyper-palatable foods have addictive qualities
Similar to how people crave tobacco products, people can crave hyper-palatable foods.
“Every addictive substance is something that we take from nature and we alter it, process it and refine it in a way that makes it more rewarding — and that is very clearly what happened with these hyper-palatable food substances,” Ashley Gearhardt, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies addiction, told The Washington Post. “We treat these foods like they come from nature. Instead, they’re foods that come from big tobacco,” said Gearhardt, who was not involved with the study.
While the tobacco giants no longer have the same dominance in food production, the authors point to their lingering influence on the American diet.
“The state of the food environment for US consumers bears a striking resemblance to the US environment in the 1950s during the tobacco epidemic, before the US federal government regulated the availability of tobacco products,” the authors said. “Similar efforts are needed to regulate the availability of HPF, in light of our evidence indicating that the same tobacco companies may have been influential in shifting the profile of US foods towards greater hyper palatability.”
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