Ultra-processed foods, the tobacco of the 21st century?

Using the same criteria used to determine the addictive potential of cigarettes, researchers suggest that ultra-processed industrial foods should also be considered addictive substances.

One of the great public health successes of recent years, but which is surprisingly little talked about, is the spectacular decline in smoking among young people. The exorbitant prices of tobacco, its banishment from public places and the emergence of alternative nicotine sources such as electronic cigarettes have overall caused the proportion of young people aged 15-19 who smoke cigarettes daily to fall from 30% to the end of 1990s to just 3% in 2020.

This is extremely encouraging, especially since tobacco addiction generally begins very early, with 9 out of 10 smokers starting in their teens.

In practice, this means that the next generation of adults will largely consist of non-smokers and therefore much less affected by the health problems that smoking (especially lung cancer) causes than previous generations.


In 1988, the US Surgeon General published a report that demonstrated beyond any doubt the addictive properties of tobacco (which were then denied by the tobacco companies).(1)

This report states that four criteria are sufficient to assume that a substance is addictive:

1) it causes compulsive consumption;

2) it exerts psychoactive effects;

3) it encourages a repetition of its consumption; and

4) it creates strong cravings and feelings of lack.

This report marked a turning point in the fight against tobacco, because with the clear awareness for the first time of the addictive potential of cigarettes, the attitude of the public and the medical community to the dangers of tobacco use was radicalized and resulted in a strong societal response to reduce the number of smokers.


A downside of the success of the radical reduction in smoking is that it was accompanied by a significant increase in the prevalence of overweight and obesity, so that the gains made in population health by the reduction in the number of smokers are counteracted by an increased risk. of many diseases associated with excess fat.

The reasons for this significant increase in obesity are many and complex, but there is a consensus that the consumption of ultra-processed foods (Fast foodubiquitous snacks, prepared foods), overloaded with fat, sugar and salt play a very important role in this phenomenon.

Using the same addiction criteria used for tobacco, researchers have recently suggested that overconsumption of ultra-processed foods can also lead to addiction to these substances.(2)

Looking at all the studies that have looked at this question, the parallel between cigarettes and these foods is striking:

1) Compulsivity: It is well established that ultra-processed foods can lead to excessive caloric intake, although their disastrous effect on health is known to most people. An extreme example of this type of compulsion is the large proportion (20-50%) of people who have undergone bariatric surgery who continue to overconsume these foods even when they cause significant physical symptoms (nausea, cramps, vomiting).

2) Psychoactive effects: It is known that all addictive substances activate the production of dopamine in the cerebral striatum. Studies show that the combination of sugar and fat found in ultra-processed foods causes a dopamine spike of an order of magnitude similar to nicotine.

3) Repeated consumption (reinforcement): Studies show that many people, both children and adults, repeatedly consume certain foods (such as chips, sweets and cookies) even when they are no longer hungry.

4) Irresistible urges and urges: Studies show that the foods that most often trigger cravings are all ultra-processed foods, and that the areas of the brain involved in this phenomenon are similar to those found in other addictive substances.


It is often said that food is essential to life, and therefore we cannot equate drugs with what we eat.

This is to forget how ultra-processed foods are not foods in the ordinary sense. Rather, they are purely industrial creations, designed to rapidly release abnormally high amounts of sugar, fat and salt to overstimulate our brains and encourage their repeated overuse, as the cigarette has been to nicotine addiction.

Given this design, it’s no wonder these products can be addictive.

(1) US Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). Health consequences of smoking: nicotine addiction. A report from the chief physician1988.

(2) Gearhardt AN and AG DiFeliceantonio. Highly processed foods can be considered addictive based on established scientific criteria. Dependencepublished on November 9, 2022.

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