Big Tobacco Made Junk Food Addictive, Too

Study says food brands owned by tobacco companies were made to hook us
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 24, 2023 8:10 AM CDT
Big Tobacco Made Junk Food Addictive, Too
A display of Oreo cookies at Costco.   (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

We've long known why junk foods are addictive (hello, sugar, salt, and fat), but researchers are now saying that big tobacco companies were behind strategically filling grocery store shelves with highly processed products when they owned food brands like Kraft and Nabisco. And importantly, they may have manufactured junk food products to make them more addictive, suggests their study in the journal Addiction. The study compared products owned by tobacco companies with competing brands, the Washington Post reports. Tobacco-owned brands were 80% more likely to contain high levels of sodium and carbs, and 29% more likely to have high levels of fat and sodium. This created "hyper-palatable" foods that people crave and tend to overeat because they hit people's "bliss point."

Tobacco companies began buying up food brands to diversify in the late '80s, and started selling them off by the early 2000s. Within this time period, the rate of obesity among adults in the United States experienced a significant increase. Per Forbes, the NIH reports that in 1980, only 15% of individuals aged 20 to 74 were categorized as obese. This percentage then rose to 23% by 1994 and reached a substantial 30.9% by the year 2000. In 2020, the CDC categorized 41.9% of American adults as obese. "These foods may be designed to make you eat more than you planned," says lead author Tera Fazzino, per Forbes. "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."

Some ingredients found in processed foods in the US are not allowed in other countries (including brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, and certain dyes), and some highly processed products are either banned or are manufactured using different ingredients abroad, per Forbes. On that list? Some of our favorite sugar cereals, Coffee-Mate products, Stove Top stuffing, Skittles, Pop-Tarts, and Mountain Dew. "We treat these foods like they come from nature," says Ashley Gearhardt, an academic who studies food addiction, per the Post. "Instead, they're foods that come from big tobacco." (Smoking, meanwhile, has dropped to an all-time low).

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