Processed Foods Like Cookies and Chips Are Addictive, Researchers Say



  • Highly processed foods are addictive by the same standards deeming tobacco addictive, a study says. 
  • The authors say the label can push forward public health policy, destigmatize obesity, and save lives.
  • The concept of food addiction has long been debated, with some saying it aligns with diet culture. 

Highly processed foods like packaged cookies and potato chips can be addictive — and that designation can support policies that improve Americans’ health and even save lives, researchers argue in a new paper in the journal Addiction. 

While some past research has supported the controversial concept of food addiction, the study authors are the first to claim such addictions are possible using the scientific standards set for tobacco products.

Labeling certain foods as addictive, the researchers say, can better hold manufacturers accountable and improve treatments for people who feel powerless against foods like doughnuts and french fries. 

“In tobacco, understanding these products were not just ‘habit forming,’ but truly addictive, motivated public health approaches that included the addition of warning labels, restricting of advertising to children, and economic incentives to avoid tobacco products,” lead author Ashley Gearhardt told Insider. 

“This led to one of the biggest public health victories in modern times and saved millions of lives,” she said. “Given the widespread public health costs associated with HPFs, I would like to see similar approaches occur to change a food environment that is dominated by highly processed foods that pushes profits over health.” 

Tobacco and junk foods have similar qualities 

To come to their conclusion, Gearhardt, a psychologist who directs the University of Michigan’s Food and Addiction Science and Treatment Lab, and her co-author Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, an appetitive neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, looked at the criteria the US Surgeon General used to identify cigarettes as addictive in 1988: they cause compulsive use, lead to mood-altering effects, and are highly reinforcing.

The researchers also included “can trigger intense cravings” as a fourth criterion, based on the past few decades of addiction research.  

Point by point, Gearhardt and DiFeliceantonio laid out evidence that they believe shows highly-processed foods, or HPFs, meet each benchmark.

For example, they say the fact that most people continue to eat such foods even when faced with serious diet-related health consequences like diabetes is evidence that HPFs can prompt compulsive use. 

As for HPFs’ mood-altering effects, the study authors point to research showing that sweets lead to high ratings of “euphoria” and that junk foods prompt a dopamine response in the reward centers of the brain akin to nicotine.

“We see that people use tobacco products and HPFs for many of the same reasons — to reduce negative moods and to increase positive moods — and the degree to which these substances are mood altering is extremely similar,” Gearhardt told Insider. 

The researchers say that HPFs are “reinforcing” because, among other reasons, people eat them past the point of satiety. 

HPFs meet the “cravings” criterion in part because research shows cravings for them activate similar brain pathways as other addictive substances.  

“Of note, there is no biomarker in the brain that tells us whether something is addictive or not. Identifying that tobacco products were addictive really boiled down to these four criteria and these criteria have stood up to decades of scientific evaluation,” Gearhardt said in a press release. “Highly processed foods meet every single one of these criteria.” 

Eating disorder specialists say the term ‘food addiction’ promotes diet culture  

Whether sugary or greasy foods are addictive has long been debated in the medical community. 

A 2014 review of studies in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found little evidence that the brain responds to food the same way it does to, say, opiates. But that doesn’t mean some people can’t experience addictive behaviors around certain foods, as evidence and plenty of anecdotes show. 

But labeling certain foods addictive can backfire, Lisa Du Breuil, a clinical social worker in Massachusetts who treats people with both substance use and eating disorders, told Insider. 

For one, it can pathologize pleasure. Seeking out highly-caloric foods is built into our DNA. “The reward pathway has evolved to make sure we’re doing things that ensure our survival,” like eating rich foods, having sex, and nurturing our babies, she said. 

Food also doesn’t seem to meet another key characteristic of an addictive substance: tolerance, or needing more and more of it over time to achieve the same “high,” nutritionist Tansey Boggon wrote on her blog. 

Some experts, including Du Breuil, also argue that a solution to addiction — abstinence — is at odds with intuitive eating, which has been shown to heal an unhealthy relationship with food.

If you have a history of dieting or forbidding certain foods, “you’ve been creating this false sense of scarcity, and when you stop doing that, food looses its ‘addictive’ nature,” Du Breuil said. “I’ve seen it over and over.” 

Du Breuil added the food addiction narrative can be perceived as fatphobic, and weight stigma can lead people in bigger bodies to overeat less healthy foods.

Destigmatizing people who feel out of control around highly processed foods

Gearhardt told Insider her work can help destigmatize people who feel out of control around highly processed foods, including those with obesity or binge eating disorder, “by calling out the role of HPFs and the food industry in creating these products.” 

Some research does indeed show that the food-addiction model can reduce blame and fear around fatness.  

Ultimately, the study authors say denying highly processed foods’ addictive nature will only delay action that could save lives — a mistake they don’t want the US to repeat from the lost years before tobacco was deemed addictive. 

“Unlike smoking, we all need to eat,” they wrote in the paper. “In the past 40 years, HPFs have become familiar substances that dominate the food environment, but we cannot lose the saliency of their potential to be addictive and harmful.”



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