Highly processed foods should be reclassified as drugs because they are as addictive and harmful as cigarettes, scientists say.
The researchers say items like donuts, sugary cereal and pizza meet the official criteria that established cigarettes as a drug in the 1990s.
These include causing compulsive consumption and mood-altering effects on the brain, as well as properties that enhance addiction and trigger food cravings.
Ultra-processed foods — which also include sodas, chips, pastries, and candies — contain high amounts of unnatural flavorings, preservatives, and sweeteners.
These properties give them their delicious flavor, but also make them high in calories, fat, sugar or salt, which increases the risk of obesity and other chronic diseases.
Researchers led by Dr. Ashley Gearhardt, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, told DailyMail.com that these foods are more drug-like due to their departure from the taste and texture of natural foods.
“These are industrially produced substances designed to deliver sugar and fat,” Dr. Alexandra DiFeliceantoni, co-author of the report and professor of health behavior research at Virginia Tech University, told DailyMail.com.
“It’s not food anymore. These are the products that have been really well designed to deliver addictive substances.
The researchers want the marketing of these foods to children to be restricted, in the same way that nicotine advertising cannot be directed at children.
Highly processed foods should be reclassified as drugs because they are as addictive and harmful as cigarettes, scientists say
Dr Ashley Gearhardt (left), professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, said HPFs are more like medicine than food. Dr. Alexandra DiFeliceantoni (right), professor of health behavior research at Virginia Tech, described foods as vessels for delivering addictive substances.
She went on to say that they are as dangerous as cigarettes for a person’s long-term health due to their high fat, sugar and chemical content.
Dr DiFeliceantoni also said she would support limiting the marketing of HPFs to children – similar to the regulation of nicotine products.
The obesity crisis in the United States is largely linked to the prevalence of HPFs. Foods are thought to make up about 50% of the American diet.
As a result, approximately 70% of Americans are obese according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of which 40% suffer from obesity.
Dr. Gearhardt warned DailyMail.com that even people who are at a healthy weight are still at risk of developing cancer and other problems from consuming HPF.
Foods have been linked to an increase in diseases like colorectal and kidney cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease in the United States, among other illnesses.
Health officials warn that the prevalence of these HPFs is having devastating consequences for the health of Americans.
At least one in FIVE premature deaths are directly linked to ultra-processed foods like pizza, cakes and sodas
According to a groundbreaking study, up to one in five premature deaths is directly linked to ultra-processed foods.
High-calorie foods like pizza, cakes, and hot dogs often contain sugar, salt, and fat, which increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.
Brazilian researchers estimated that in 2019, the deaths of about 57,000 Brazilians between the ages of 30 and 69 were attributed to highly processed snacks.
This represents nearly 22% of deaths from preventable diseases in this age group and 10% of all premature deaths.
Experts said that in high-income countries like the US, Canada and the UK – where junk food consumption is higher – the estimated impact would be even greater.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Eduardo Nilson, a nutritionist at the University of São Paulo, said: “UPF consumption is associated with many disease outcomes, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease , diabetes, certain cancers and other diseases, and this represents an important cause of preventable and premature death in Brazilian adults.
He added: “To our knowledge, no study to date has estimated the potential impact of FPUs on premature death.
“Knowing the deaths attributable to the consumption of these foods and modeling how changes in dietary habits can support more effective food policies could prevent disease and premature death.
Their high calorie, fat and sugar content makes people who eat them regularly more at risk of developing diseases such as obesity or diabetes.
A shocking study published in September that found rates of early breast, colon and pancreatic cancer are rising globally also singled out these foods as culprits.
Brazilian researchers published a study earlier this week suggesting that one in five premature deaths in the South American nation was linked to processed foods.
Now, experts are calling for them to be regulated in the same way as other dangerous and deadly drugs.
In 1988, Dr. Charles Everett Koop, who served as US Surgeon General to President Ronald Reagan, published a 600-page report on nicotine addiction.
At the time, more than half of American adults smoked cigarettes, but the long-term effects of smoking were relatively unknown.
Dr. Koop used three key measures, compulsive use, mood alteration, and reinforcement to determine that nicotine was an addictive substance.
Last year, scientists determined that the cravings experienced by many chronic users are also a fourth pillar of addiction.
Dr. Gearhardt and Dr. DiFeliceantoni applied the standards used to determine that nicotine was also an addictive substance for HPFs.
The first was compulsive use, which they described as someone wanting to eat the food even when they were aware of it being unhealthy.
“People want to cut back, people diet, and the vast majority of people fail,” Dr Gearhardt told DailyMail.com.
“They find it difficult to do it even though they know it will kill them.”
She blamed the fat and sugar content of the foods for triggering an addictive response in the brain.
Although more research on HPFs is needed to determine their exact impact on the brain, she thinks the rate at which the body processes them may play a role.
Unlike natural foods, the body quickly breaks down HPFs and disperses its contents throughout the body.
These rapid hits are similar to how nicotine, alcohol, and cocaine work throughout the body.
The high sugar and fat content of these foods also impact a person’s dopamine receptors in the brain.
“It affects your well-being or your mood in a way that affects the brain,” says Dr. DiFeliceantoni.
The research couple describes it as a “psychoactive” effect that a person will need to consume more HPF to achieve again – just like that of other drugs.
Processed foods also have a “reinforcement” effect, where a person can crave the food even when they don’t need it.
Dr. Gearhardt uses the example of a person with healthy food in their fridge who chooses to go out and buy chocolate ice cream because of their addiction.
People can also crave their favorite HPFs, looking for the effect heavy fats and sugars have on the brain – meeting the fourth criterion, added later.
Eating these foods can have serious negative health effects over time.
“We know that the consumption of HPF is linked to cancer…. consuming [these]foods increase your risk of cancer, even in a healthy individual,” she said.
“If you’re skinny, you’re always at risk.”
These foods have also been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other problems.
The Michigan doctor points out that many of the tactics used by companies to sell cigarettes to young people in previous decades are not used for HPFs.
Like the way tobacco companies used characters like Joe Camel in the 1990s, many of these foods marketed to kids also feature “cool” and colorful characters.
In 1963, the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company behind Joe Camel purchased Hawaiian Punch from its original manufacturer.
Originally developed as a cocktail mixer for adults, the tobacco company added a character named “Punchy” to its sugary drink and began marketing it to children.
It was then sold to American manufacturing giant Procter & Gamble in 1990, but not before becoming a household name.
In 1985, Philip Morris – the nation’s largest cigarette manufacturer then and now – acquired General Foods, which now owns popular and colorful children’s cereals marketed to children like Trix, Lucky Charms and Coco Puffs.
The two scientists’ report did not specifically focus on products made by companies that are or were once owned by cigarette makers.
Dr Gearhardt says these are examples of industries using what they learned from selling nicotine to push another harmful drug.
Like how the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on the marketing of nicotine to children in the 1990s, the two researchers want similar policies for HPFs.
“The consequences are getting so serious that we need to act,” added Dr Gearhardt.