Study Links Tobacco Companies to America's Junk Food Addiction

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The majority of food consumed by Americans today falls under the umbrella of "junk food," or foods that are high in fat, sodium, sugar, and carbohydrates. And according to a new study, there's a link between these kinds of foods and tobacco companies that had a stake in the U.S. food industry decades ago.

The study, conducted by a University of Kansas researcher and published on Sept. 8 in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction, found that Big Tobacco "selectively disseminated hyperpalatable foods” to American consumers. "Hyperpalatable" is the word used by researchers to describe food items featuring a "purposely tempting combinations of salts, fats and sugars."

Tera Fazzino, KU assistant professor of psychology and associate director of the Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment who led the study, found in her previous work that 68 percent of the American food supply today is classified as hyperpalatable.

For the purpose of this study, Fazzino and her team examined food marketed to consumers from between 1988 and 2001. They found that foods owned by tobacco companies were 29 percent more likely to be classified as fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable and 80 percent more likely to be classified as carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable.

The researchers arrived at their findings by examining data from publicly available tobacco industry documents to determine ownership of food companies, and then used U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition data to estimate how much foods were "formulated to be hyperpalatable, based on tobacco ownership."

For example, Philip Morris (now Altria Inc.) acquired Kraft in 1988, which is now the parent company of brands such as Nabisco, Oreo, and Oscar Mayer. Although tobacco companies cut ties with the U.S. food system in the early to mid-2000s (Philip Morris sold its stake in Kraft in 2007, at which point the two companies were no longer affiliated), the effects on the American diet have endured to this day.

"We used multiple sources of data to examine the question, 'In what ways were U.S. tobacco companies involved in the promotion and spread of hyperpalatable food into our food system?'" Fazzino explained. "Hyperpalatable foods can be irresistible and difficult to stop eating. They have combinations of palatability-related nutrients, specifically fat, sugar, sodium or other carbohydrates that occur in combinations together."

Fazzino cited work by University of California-San Francisco researcher Laura Schmidt, who previously found that the same tobacco companies were involved in the development and heavy marketing of sugary drinks to kids. Likewise, Philip Morris had been involved in employing tobacco marketing strategies that targeted racial and ethnic minority communities.

Decades later, Fazzino points out that it's actually more difficult for Americans to access foods that are not considered hyperpalatable.

"In our day-to-day lives, the foods we’re surrounded by and can easily grab are mostly the hyperpalatable ones," she added. "And foods that are not hyperpalatable, such as fresh fruits and vegetables—they’re not just hard to find, they’re also more expensive. We don’t really have many choices when it comes to picking between foods that are fresh and enjoyable to eat (e.g., a crisp apple) and foods that you just can’t stop eating."