An international consortium of researchers from the United States, Brazil, and Spain, including experts from the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and the University of Michigan, have come together with an essential message: ultra-processed foods could be driving a new type of addiction. This warning, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), sheds light on how these foods may be harming global health.
The Science Behind The Claim
Ashley Gearhardt, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and the study’s lead author, emphasized the increasing evidence supporting the concept of food addiction, particularly regarding certain types of processed foods. “There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of food addiction,” Gearhardt said. “By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”
Co-author Alexandra DiFeliceantonio further elucidated that while individuals can relinquish habits like smoking, drinking, or gambling, it’s impossible to stop eating entirely. However, not all foods are inherently addictive. DiFeliceantonio clarified that natural or minimally processed foods primarily offer a singular energy source, either as carbohydrates or fats. Contrastingly, ultra-processed foods, due to their combination of energy sources, can trigger a different effect on the brain, amplifying their addictive potential.
Dopamine Spikes and Addiction
A concerning aspect of UPF consumption is the effect on dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Consuming these foods causes dopamine levels to rise, creating a feeling of pleasure. However, the subsequent crash prompts a desire to experience the sensation again, leading to increased consumption. This pattern mirrors the dopamine spikes caused by substances such as alcohol and nicotine, reinforcing the addiction theory.
- Substance Use Disorder: Behaviors surrounding ultra-processed foods might qualify for substance use disorder diagnosis, characterized by uncontrollable intake, intense cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and continued consumption despite evident health issues.
- Global Reach: An analysis of 281 studies from 36 countries revealed that 14% of adults and 12% of children may suffer from ultra-processed food addiction. Their availability and consumption vary by country, with some regions heavily reliant on them as primary calorie sources.
- Comparison: The study cites similar addiction levels to alcohol (14% of adults) and nicotine (18% of adults).
The NOVA Scale: Identifying Ultra-Processed Foods
To better navigate and understand food choices, it’s vital to differentiate between types of processed foods. The NOVA scale classifies food processing into four groups:
- Group 1: Unprocessed and minimally processed foods, e.g., vegetables, legumes, meat.
- Group 2: Ingredients processed for preservation and taste, e.g., vegetable oils, sugar, butter.
- Group 3: Industrially manufactured foods combining Group 1 and 2 ingredients, e.g., bread, jams, canned foods.
- Group 4: Ultra-processed foods, e.g., foods with additives like MSG, hydrogenated fats, and mechanically separated meats like hotdogs.
Beyond Health: Broader Implications
Acknowledging foods as addictive can influence health policies. For example, Chile and Mexico have adopted measures like taxes, labeling, and marketing controls, resulting in reduced consumption of high sugar, saturated fat, and salt foods. Following a salt-reduction program, the UK saw a decline in stroke and coronary artery disease-related deaths.
Despite the growing awareness and the data presented, there’s much left to uncover. DiFeliceantonio highlighted the gaps in our understanding, saying, “Given how prevalent these foods are – they make up 58 percent of calories consumed in the United States – there is so much we don’t know.” Researchers are urging comprehensive studies on the complex features of ultra-processed foods, their addictive potential, and better definitions to identify which foods can be considered addictive.
In light of these revelations, it becomes crucial for global policymakers, health professionals, and consumers to recognize and address the potential risks associated with the overconsumption of ultra-processed foods.
The widespread consumption of ultra-processed foods not only points to the allure of their convenience and palatability but also underscores the intricate network of production, marketing, and distribution that has seamlessly integrated them into daily diets worldwide. With evidence mounting on the adverse health implications and the potentially addictive nature of these foods, it’s crucial to delve deeper into the factors that fuel their dominance in global food systems.