Tobacco Giants’ Influence on Processed Foods Examined in New Study
A new study published in the journal Addiction suggests that tobacco companies may have used similar strategies to hook people on processed foods as they did with cigarettes. In the 1980s, tobacco giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds acquired major food companies Kraft, General Foods, and Nabisco, enabling them to dominate America’s food supply and generate billions of dollars in sales from popular brands such as Oreo cookies, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, and Lunchables.
The research, conducted by Tera Fazzino, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Kansas, focuses on the rise of “hyper-palatable” foods. These foods contain combinations of fat, sodium, sugar, and other additives designed to drive cravings and overeating. The study found that, during the period when tobacco companies owned leading food brands, their products were far more likely to be hyper-palatable compared to similar foods not owned by tobacco companies.
The prevalence of hyper-palatable foods in the food supply has increased rapidly over the past 30 years, coinciding with a surge in obesity and diet-related diseases. The steepest increase in the prevalence of hyper-palatable foods in America occurred between 1988 and 2001, the era when Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds owned major food companies. Though the tobacco companies no longer own these food brands, researchers argue that the findings are significant because the ultra-processed foods we consume today were engineered by an industry that excels in creating addictive and appealing products.
The study was conducted using documents from the University of California’s Industry Documents Library, which contains millions of internal tobacco industry documents. The researchers compared the nutritional makeup of 105 foods owned by tobacco companies between 1988 and 2001 to 587 similar products sold by competing brands not owned by tobacco companies. The study found that tobacco-owned foods were 80% more likely to contain hyper-palatable combinations of carbs and sodium, and 29% more likely to contain potent combinations of fat and sodium.
Experts believe that tobacco companies engineered processed foods to hit consumers’ “bliss” points and elicit cravings, similar to how addictive substances work. Ashley Gearhardt, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, explains that hyper-palatable foods contain ingredients from plants and foods that are purified, concentrated, and transformed into products that quickly affect reward centers in the brain. Many of these hyper-palatable foods come from the same companies that used to produce cigarettes.
While tobacco companies declined to comment on the study, critics argue that their involvement in the food industry dates back 60 years when they sought to diversify their product portfolios. These companies had extensive libraries of flavors, colors, and additives developed for cigarettes, which they used to create a range of processed foods. The acquisition of brands like Hawaiian Punch, Nabisco, and General Foods enabled them to enter the food market and introduce popular products like Teddy Grahams, SnackWell’s cookies, and Lunchables.
The findings of the study highlight the need for greater awareness of where our food comes from and who was responsible for putting highly-palatable and addictive products into the food system. As the prevalence of hyper-palatable foods increases, experts stress the importance of understanding the marketing and engineering tactics employed by tobacco companies to create a food environment saturated with unhealthy options.