- Some foods, notably those that are “ultra-processed,” resemble the way other addictive substances, like nicotine and alcohol, interact with the body.
- Overconsumption of food chemicals has been linked to a range of health problems, including depression, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
- Classifying certain food chemicals as addictive may help promote research in this area.
If you have trouble stopping with just one potato chip or slice of frozen pizza once you get started, you’re not alone. Fourteen percent of adults and 12 percent of kids show characteristics of “food addiction.”
The reason, according to a new study, is that many people react to certain foods in a way that resembles addiction, much as some people respond to nicotine and alcohol.
Certain kinds of foods are more likely to elicit this response. The study makes the case that the culprit may be ultra-processed foods – industrially produced, packaged foods made with ingredients that aren’t available in home kitchens. High in refined carbohydrates and fats, loaded with food additives, they are typically less nutritious and higher in calories than less-processed foods.
They’re the foods most suspected of prompting an addiction-like response.
The study, “Social, Clinical, and Policy Implications of Ultra-Processed Food Addiction,” was conducted by a team of researchers led by Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, and recently published in the peer-reviewed journal BMJ.
Ultra-processed foods are “highly rewarding, appealing, and consumed compulsively and may be addictive,” the study says. The way we consume them “may meet the criteria for diagnosis of substance abuse disorder in some people.”
And consume them we do – in large quantities. Of roughly 30 countries, the U.S. consumes the most ultra-processed foods. About 58 percent of daily energy intake comes from these foods.
Defining ‘ultra-processed food’
The term “ultra-processed” refers to foods that are:
… formulations mostly of cheap industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients plus additives. . . . [They are] energy-dense, high in unhealthy types of fat, refined starches, free sugars and salt, and poor sources of protein, dietary fibre and micronutrients. Ultra-processed products are made to be hyper-palatable and attractive, with long shelf-life, and able to be consumed anywhere, any time.
The new research also points a finger at additives – the food chemicals commonly found in packaged foods, such as artificial colorants and sweeteners, flavor enhancers, preservatives and stabilizers. They are among the source of ultra-processed foods’ flavor, texture and palatability.
The study’s authors call for rigorous research into the ways additives may encourage continued and increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods.
Consumption of packaged foods
Less-processed foods are generally the most healthful. But they also tend to be more expensive – and less accessible in some communities because of a history of discriminatory housing policies and other structural inequities.
Some people may be enticed by packaged foods’ affordability and hyper-palatability, especially if they’re among those who are targeted by big companies’ marketing campaigns.
Consequences of food ‘addiction’
Ultra-processed foods aren’t just less nutritious. They also tend to be higher in calories. As a result, people consuming greater amounts are more likely to have a less healthy weight and greater risk of metabolic disease.
And as with addiction to other substances, overreliance on ultra-processed foods can lead to other harmful consequences – “higher general psychopathology, lower cognitive function and worse treatment outcomes,” according to the study.
Regulating food chemicals
The study’s authors suggest that classifying these foods as addictive would promote research into their effect on the people who consume them. One outcome of a new perspective on ultra-processed foods could be a different kind of attention to these foods, including more research and policy interventions.
In the meantime, the federal government should regulate the food chemicals so often found in ultra-processed foods. EWG has signed on to two petitions being considered by the Food and Drug Administration that would revoke approval of the use of titanium dioxide and Red Dye No. 3 in food.
In the absence of this regulation, states are stepping into the gap. Most recently California passed into law a landmark bill banning the sale of food in the state containing any of four chemicals – propyl paraben, Red Dye No. 3, brominated vegetable oil and potassium bromate. The law goes into effect in 2027.
Companies selling products that contain these chemicals will likely reformulate them for all Americans – it’s unlikely they will want to produce two versions of their product, one for the Golden State and one for the rest of the country.
Avoiding harmful ingredients in ultra-processed foods
Most people consume packaged foods from time to time. To avoid the health consequences of consuming excessive amounts, you can:
- Eat mostly foods that are relatively unprocessed – whole grains and beans and fresh fruits and vegetables.
- If you choose to consume ultra-processed foods, do so in moderation.
- If you’re going to buy packaged foods, choose organic, whenever possible. Peer-reviewed EWG research has shown that packaged organic foods contain fewer ingredients associated with negative health consequences.
- Study nutritional labels to see what’s in the foods you want to buy. The fewer items on the label, the less processed the food is. Ingredients you can’t identify are likely chemicals that may be harmful.
- Consult EWG’s Food Scores, our searchable database of more than 80,000 foods, to find out more about the products you buy and their ingredients.