Many of us know the allure of junk food all too well. Junk food typically refers to foods that are high in calories but low in nutritional value. These foods often contain high amounts of sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. Junk foods offer a quick burst of energy and pleasure and they can also trigger our brain’s reward system in ways similar to addictive substances. This, combined with their convenience and our personal associations, can make them hard to resist. To make matters even worse, junk food is often aggressively marketed.
Now, a new study has found a surprising origin to junk food’s popularity in the US. As it turns out, tobacco companies invested heavily in the U.S. food industry in the 1980s and “selectively disseminated” these foods to American consumers.
From burgers to sugary drinks and a million processed snacks in between, there’s no shortage of junk food. Researchers employ a more refined term for this type of food: they call them ‘hyperpalatable foods’. Tera Fazzino, assistant professor of psychology at Kansas University, previously showed that 68% of the American food supply is hyperpalatable.
“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.”
“These combinations of nutrients provide a really enhanced eating experience and make them difficult to stop eating,” she said. “These effects are different than if you just had something high in fat but had no sugar, salt or other type of refined carbohydrate.”
Now, Fazzino and colleagues wanted to see what role tobacco companies played in bringing hyperpalatable foods to the forefront of the American food industry.
Big tobacco does food
Many people may not be aware that for a time in the 1980s and 1990s, tobacco companies had a big stake in the food industry. For instance, Altria (formerly Philips Morris) bought Kraft, General Foods, and several other high-profile food companies. RJ Reynolds (a major tobacco company) merged with Nabisco (a leading food company known for products like Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers). This merger formed RJR Nabisco, one of the largest consumer product companies in the world.
In addition, multiple colors and flavors designed for cigarettes were used to build major beverage products, including Capri Sun, Kool-Aid, and Tang — which is pretty concerning in itself. In fact, previous research showed that Philip Morris was involved in the direct transfer of tobacco marketing strategies targeting racial and ethnic minority communities in the U.S. to sell their food products.
Even after the tobacco companies sold these brands to food and beverage corporations, many of the product lines and marketing techniques are still in use.
Fazzino and her co-authors wanted to see whether tobacco companies also pushed hyperpalatable foods. They found that between 1988 and 2001, tobacco-owned foods were 29% more likely to be classified as fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable and 80% more likely to be classified as carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable than foods that were not tobacco-owned.
“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?’” said Fazzino.
The tobacco playbook
The authors stopped short of drawing any conclusions about the intention of tobacco companies. But the end result is all the same.
“The question about their intent — we can’t really say from this data,” Fazzino said. “But what we can say is there’s evidence to indicate tobacco companies were consistently involved with owning and developing hyperpalatable foods during the time that they were leading our food system. Their involvement was selective in nature and different from the companies that didn’t have a parent tobacco-company ownership.”
Tobacco companies have a long history of manipulating the public. Big tobacco ‘played dirty’ and this claimed millions of lives. Now, it looks like the inglorious legacy may run even deeper than we thought. In fact, previous studies had drawn attention to the similarities between the tobacco industry and the food industry. A study from 2009 concluded:
“The tobacco industry had a playbook, a script, that emphasized personal responsibility, paying scientists who delivered research that instilled doubt, criticizing the “junk” science that found harms associated with smoking, making self-regulatory pledges, lobbying with massive resources to stifle government action, introducing “safer” products, and simultaneously manipulating and denying both the addictive nature of their products and their marketing to children. The script of the food industry is both similar to and different from the tobacco industry script.”
Stopping hyperpalatable food
It’s not just that these foods are themselves unhealthy. Hyperpalatable foods are designed to make you eat more and more. They trick your body into thinking you haven’t had enough. This type of food has become pervasive in today’s world and are directly linked to the obesity crisis in places like the US.
“The majority of what’s out there in our food supply falls under the hyperpalatable category,” Fazzino said. “It’s actually a bit difficult to track down food that’s not hyperpalatable. In our day-to-day lives, the foods we’re surrounded by and can easily grab are mostly the hyperpalatable ones. 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.”
So what can we do to address this? There’s no simple answer, but one approach could be to regulate formulations of food that are designed to make you eat more than you need (and than you want).
“These foods have combinations of ingredients that create effects you don’t get when you eat those ingredients separately,” the KU researcher said. “And guess what? These combinations don’t really exist in nature, so our bodies aren’t ready to handle them. They can excessively trigger our brain’s reward system and disrupt our fullness signals, which is why they’re difficult to resist.”
However, any solution is bound to be challenging. Studies show that the claimed self-regulation by the food industry is weak and ineffective. In addition, the food industry strongly lobbies in an attempt to cancel regulation and advertising bans, while at the same time continuing aggressive marketing policies.
Unraveling the intricate web of influence that tobacco companies had over the American food industry is both fascinating and alarming. The impact of these hyperpalatable foods on our health, behavior, and choices cannot be overstated. Knowledge, however, is power. Being aware of the origins and manipulative designs of these foods is the first step in regaining control over our diets. As consumers, we have the power to influence the market by choosing healthier, whole foods and supporting regulations that prioritize public health over corporate profits. After all, in a world that’s increasingly influenced by profit-driven agendas, it’s crucial to remember that our well-being and health are invaluable.
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