Scientists find the addictive nature of highly processed foods

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For years, researchers have debated whether highly processed foods could be classified as addictive.

A new analysis from the University of Michigan and Virginia Tech has now applied the same criteria used to establish the addictiveness of tobacco to food, concluding that highly processed foods can indeed be addictive.

Meeting the Criteria for Addiction

The study, led by Ashley Gearhardt and Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, applied the four criteria used in the 1988 U.S. Surgeon General’s report on tobacco:

  1. They trigger compulsive use where people are unable to quit or cut down.
  2. They can cause changes in the brain similar to nicotine in tobacco products.
  3. They are highly reinforcing.
  4. They trigger intense urges and cravings.

According to Gearhardt, highly processed foods meet all these criteria, making them as addictive as tobacco products.

The study, published in the journal Addiction, draws parallels between the role of tobacco and highly processed foods in public health crises.

Key Factors of Addictiveness

One of the contributing factors to the addictive nature of processed foods is their composition, which often includes unnaturally high doses of refined carbohydrates and fats. This rapid delivery of potent ingredients triggers responses in the brain similar to other addictive substances.

Consequences for Public Health

According to the researchers, the addictive quality of processed foods may be contributing significantly to the escalating costs in public health.

Just as tobacco was the largest cause of preventable deaths over three decades ago, poor diets dominated by processed foods are now at the same level.

Targeting Vulnerable Populations

DiFeliceantonio points out the particular concern of children being major targets of advertising for processed foods.

This exposure can lead to early addictive behaviors, similar to how young people get hooked on tobacco, setting a dangerous course for lifelong health problems.

Delay in Acknowledging Addictive Nature

Gearhardt notes that failing to recognize the addictive nature of tobacco delayed effective public health interventions, costing millions of lives. She warns that the same could be happening with processed foods.

Recommendations and Implications

The study suggests it’s time to change the perception of highly processed foods, not as mere food items but as highly refined substances with addictive potential.

This change in perspective could pave the way for regulatory actions similar to those enforced on tobacco products, including warning labels, age restrictions, and advertising limitations, particularly targeted at vulnerable populations like children.


The University of Michigan and Virginia Tech study significantly contributes to our understanding of the role of processed foods in the obesity epidemic and other health crises.

Recognizing the addictive nature of these foods could be the first step in implementing strategies that could save millions of lives, just as acknowledging the addictive nature of tobacco led to more effective public health policies.

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The research findings can be found in Addiction.