The Tempting Formula: Hyperpalatability of Food from Tobacco-Linked Brands

Food brands in the United States owned by the tobacco industry have been associated with the promotion of addictive and unhealthy food products, contributing to widespread health issues like obesity. Many Americans are familiar with the addictive qualities of certain foods commonly referred to as “junk food,” characterized by their high levels of salt, sugar, and fat. These foods are scientifically termed “hyperpalatable” due to their intentionally enticing combinations of these taste elements.

A recent study conducted by a researcher at the University of Kansas, published in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction on September 8, has shed light on how food brands owned by tobacco companies, which made substantial investments in the U.S. food industry during the 1980s, seem to have selectively introduced hyperpalatable foods to American consumers.

The lead author of the study, Tera Fazzino, an assistant professor of psychology at KU and associate director of the Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment at the KU Life Span Institute, explained, “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.”

Fazzino’s previous research has revealed that a significant portion, 68%, of the American food supply falls under the hyperpalatable category. These combinations of nutrients create an enhanced eating experience and make these foods challenging to resist, unlike items high in fat alone without sugar, salt, or refined carbohydrates.

The study’s findings indicated that between 1988 and 2001, food products owned by tobacco companies were 29% more likely to be classified as fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable and 80% more likely to be classified as carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable compared to foods without tobacco ownership.

The researchers utilized data from internal tobacco industry documents, publicly available, to determine ownership of food companies. They then analyzed nutrition data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in longitudinal studies to estimate the extent to which these foods were designed to be hyperpalatable due to tobacco ownership.

While the study couldn’t definitively establish the intent behind these actions, it did provide evidence suggesting that tobacco companies consistently engaged in owning and developing hyperpalatable foods during their dominance of the food industry. This involvement appeared to be selective and distinct from companies without ties to tobacco.

The researchers drew inspiration from previous work by Laura Schmidt at the University of California-San Francisco, which demonstrated that tobacco companies, such as R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, were involved in the development and aggressive marketing of sugary drinks to children and the transfer of tobacco marketing strategies targeting racial and ethnic minority communities to promote their food products.

Although tobacco companies gradually divested from the U.S. food system in the early to mid-2000s, the study revealed that fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods (over 57%) and carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods (over 17%) remained prevalent in 2018, irrespective of their past tobacco ownership. This suggests that these hyperpalatable foods have become ingrained in the American diet.

In conclusion, the majority of food available in the U.S. falls into the hyperpalatable category, making it challenging to find alternatives like fresh fruits and vegetables, which are both less accessible and more expensive. Understanding the metrics of hyperpalatability could aid in regulating food formulations designed to induce continuous eating, as these foods can stimulate the brain’s reward system excessively and disrupt signals of fullness, leading to unintentional overconsumption and increased risk of obesity and related health problems.

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