Scientists Recommend Labeling Certain Ultra-Processed Foods as ‘Addictive

Scientists Recommend Labeling Certain Ultra-Processed Foods as ‘Addictive

Ultra-processed foods can have a similar impact on individuals as drugs, leading to intense cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and continued consumption despite harmful consequences, according to researchers. They suggest that labeling these ultra-processed foods (UPFs) as “addictive” could potentially help some people modify their behavior.

It is estimated that one in seven adults and one in eight children may be addicted to UPFs, and individuals who consume foods high in fat and carbohydrates may meet the criteria for a substance use disorder diagnosis. Such behaviors include experiencing intense cravings, withdrawal symptoms, reduced control over food intake, and continuing to consume these foods despite negative consequences such as obesity, binge eating disorder, poorer physical and mental health, and a lower quality of life.

A team of international researchers reviewed 281 studies from 36 different countries and found that “ultra-processed food addiction” affects an estimated 14% of adults and 12% of children. They suggest that recognizing certain high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods as “addictive” could potentially lead to improvements in public health through changes in social, clinical, and political policies.

Ashley Gearhardt, the article’s corresponding author and a psychology professor at the University of Michigan in the US, stated, “There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of food addiction. By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”

The authors of the paper, published in The BMJ, provided an example of a portion of salmon and a chocolate bar. Salmon has a carbohydrate-to-fat ratio of roughly 0-to-1, while the chocolate bar has a carbohydrate-to-fat ratio of 1-to-1, which could increase its addictive potential.

The researchers, from the US, Brazil, and Spain, noted that “refined carbohydrates or fats evoke similar levels of extracellular dopamine in the brain striatum to those seen with addictive substances such as nicotine and alcohol. Foods that deliver high levels of refined carbohydrates or added fats are strong candidates for addictive substances.”

The speed at which these foods deliver carbohydrates and fats to the gut could also contribute to their “addictive potential.” Additionally, food additives may play a role in the “addictiveness of UPFs,” as they enhance the effects of calories in the gut.

However, the researchers emphasize that not all foods have addictive potential. They conclude that UPFs high in refined carbohydrates and fats are consumed in addictive patterns and have negative health outcomes. Recognizing these foods as addictive could lead to innovative approaches in social justice, clinical care, and policy development.

Post Disclaimer

Disclaimer: The views, suggestions, and opinions expressed here are the sole responsibility of the experts. No Atlantic Brief journalist was involved in the writing and production of this article.