The chemically addictive fatty, salty and sweet foods that make up 68% of the American food supply have historically been pushed to consumers by the nation’s leading tobacco sales companies, new research shows, suggesting the same companies responsible for what has been called a “smoking epidemic” could also be partially blamed for a decline in Americans’ health.
Food producers owned by tobacco companies like Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds developed a disproportionately high number of what scientists call “hyper-palatable” foods between 1988 and 2001, a study out Friday by University of Kansas researchers said, “resulting in substantial tobacco-related influence on the U.S. food system.”
In the same way tobacco companies formulated cigarette products to maximize their addictiveness, the study’s authors accuse the food producers of taking the same tactics, pumping edible and drinkable products full of sugar, caffeine, fat, sodium and carbs to “create an artificially rewarding eating experience.”
Foods produced by tobacco-owned companies were 29% more likely to be classified as hyper-palatable—having a certain mix of ingredients designed to be addictive—due to fat and sodium, the study’s authors found, and 80% more likely to be ultrahigh in carbohydrates and sodium than foods that were produced by other companies.
Tobacco companies largely divested from the U.S. food system in the early 2000s, the research published in peer-reviewed journal Addiction says, but “the shadow of big tobacco remained”—those hyper-palatable foods are still mainstays of the American diet, and those who consume them are more likely to be obese and have related health problems.
Food producers that were once tobacco-owned include Kraft-General Foods—merged together by Phillip Morris to become what was then the largest food company in the world—and Nabisco, which together produced products under the brands Oreo, Ritz, Miracle Whip and Oscar Meyer, among others.
“These foods may be designed to make you eat more than you planned,” lead author Tera Fazzino said in a statement. “It’s not just about personal choice and watching what you eat—they can kind of trick your body into eating more than you actually want.”
The research, conducted last year, found and analyzed 373 tobacco-owned brands and the products they produced compared to food items not owned by tobacco brands in the same time period. Foods were identified as hyper-palatable if they included specific ingredients at specific thresholds that make foods addictive enough to be the targets of binge-eating episodes and food addiction. Ultimately, the study found that the foods produced by tobacco companies were “designed to maximize public consumption at great risk to public health.” Particularly, sodium was found to be the key ingredient that made a food hyper-palatable and led to more promotion by parent companies. As concern around the amount of sugar in the American diet grew in the 1990s and 2000s, the companies adapted—promoting foods that could be enhanced with sodium and “remaining under the detection of most nutritional advice and public scrutiny.”
Despite growing evidence that such foods are harmful, there are no federal regulations in the United States regarding foods that are hyper-palatable. The U.S. does not restrict a number of ingredients that have been banned in other countries for their negative health consequences, including certain color dyes, brominated vegetable oil and potassium bromate, a suspected carcinogen that is banned for human consumption in Europe, China and India. Common products that are banned in other countries—or that are sold with a modified list of ingredients to meet local standards—include Mountain Dew, Little Debbie Swiss Rolls, Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, Coffee-Mate products, Stove Top stuffing, Skittles and Pop-Tarts, among others.
The prevalence of obesity in American adults rose sharply between 1980 and 2000. Only 15% of people between the ages of 20 and 74 were considered obese in 1980, according to the National Institutes of Health, which rose to 23% by 1994 and 30.9% in 2000. The World Health Organization has blamed the rise in obesity on the disappearance of available fresh foods, control of the food chain by corporations and increasing mass production of processed foods. By March 2020, 41.9% of adults were obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.