When you hear the word “addiction,” what comes to mind? A pack-a-day smoking habit? Empty alcohol bottles lining a dresser? How about cars backed up at the fast food drive-thru? Or a pantry overflowing with fatty, sugary, and salty snacks? While cigarettes and alcohol are commonly recognized as addictive substances, experts say “ultra-processed” foods are dangerous too.

Ultra-processed foods typically contain five or more ingredients — including preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, artificial colors and flavors, salt, sugar, oils, and fats. Soda, chips, ice cream, sweetened breakfast cereal, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and fries are popular examples. 

According to a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) by researchers in the United States, Spain, and Brazil, 14% of adults and 12% of children worldwide show signs of ultra-processed food addiction, per the Yale Food Addiction Scale

The research team reviewed 281 studies across 36 countries and found the numbers to be “similar to the levels of addiction seen for other legal substances in adults,” including 14% in alcohol and 18% in tobacco. That level of implied addiction in children is considered “unprecedented.” 

“By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health,” Ashley Gearhardt, a University of Michigan professor, said in a statement. 

The Science of Food Addiction

The speed at which ultra-processed foods deliver carbs and fats to the gut may contribute to their addictive nature, researchers say. Additives like monosodium glutamate or high fructose corn syrup that enhance flavor and texture may also contribute to addiction. 

Food addiction is defined as an uncontrollable urge to eat food that doesn’t relate to feelings of hunger. Symptoms include obsessive cravings, the need to eat food for emotional release, eating to the point of physical discomfort, or eating alone to avoid attention. 

Similar to nicotine in cigarettes, junk foods stimulate the release of dopamine, a chemical in the brain associated with pleasure. 

Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, said there is one difference: People can quit smoking or drinking, but they can’t stop eating.

“Most foods that we think of as natural, or minimally processed, provide energy in the form of carbohydrate or fat — but not both,” she said.

Black Americans and Junk Food

High consumption of ultra-processed foods have also been linked to greater risk for high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, and early death. Yet, in America, we eat ultra-processed foods more than other foods.

A study published in the BMJ in 2015 found that ultra-processed foods account for 58% of the calories eaten in the U.S. And nearly 90% of the energy Americans consume are from added sugars. 

People who are food insecure  — or lack access to reliable, affordable, nutritious food — are more likely to eat ultra-processed foods. For this reason, Black Americans are more likely than other groups to consume these foods. They’re also more likely to experience high blood pressure as a direct result. 

Food and beverage companies have a part to play in engineering these disparities. Each year, they spend millions targeting Black consumers with advertisements for high-calorie, low-nutrient products.

“It will take courageous action to change these and other economic and structural factors that drive people towards ultra-processed foods,” Gearhardt said.

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