The chemically addictive fatty, salty and sweet foods that make up 68% of the American food supply have historically been pushed to consumers by the nation’s leading tobacco sales companies, new research shows, suggesting the same companies responsible for what has been called a “smoking epidemic” could also be partially blamed for a decline in Americans’ health.
Food producers owned by tobacco companies like Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds developed a disproportionately high number of what scientists call “hyper-palatable” foods between 1988 and 2001, a study out Friday by University of Kansas researchers said, “resulting in substantial tobacco-related influence on the U.S. food system.”
In the same way tobacco companies formulated cigarette products to maximize their addictiveness, the study’s authors accuse the food producers of taking the same tactics, pumping edible and drinkable products full of sugar, caffeine, fat, sodium and carbs to “create an artificially rewarding eating experience.”
Foods produced by tobacco-owned companies were 29% more likely to be classified as hyper-palatable—having a certain mix of ingredients designed to be addictive—due to fat and sodium, the study’s authors found, and 80% more likely to be ultrahigh in carbohydrates and sodium than foods that were produced by other companies.
Tobacco companies largely divested from the U.S. food system in the early 2000s, the research published in peer-reviewed journal Addiction says, but “the shadow of big tobacco remained”—those hyper-palatable foods are still mainstays of the American diet, and those who consume them are more likely to be obese and have related health problems.
Food producers that were once tobacco-owned include Kraft-General Foods—merged together by Phillip Morris to become what was then the largest food company in the world—and Nabisco, which together produced products under the brands Oreo, Ritz, Miracle Whip and Oscar Meyer, among others.
“These foods may be designed to make you eat more than you planned,” lead author Tera Fazzino said in a statement. “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.”