Addiction Audio: Are highly-processed foods addictive?

In this episode of the Addiction Audio podcast, Rob Calder talks to...
Created On: 15 December 2022   (Last updated: 04 January 2023)

In this episode of the Addiction Audio podcast, Rob Calder talks to Dr Ashley Gearhardt from the University of Michigan about whether foods with refined carbohydrates and added fats can be considered ‘addictive substances’. They discuss similarities between tobacco products and everyday food items such as carbonated soft drinks, ice cream, cakes, and pizza, including the degree to which they can trigger strong cravings.

Addiction Audio is a podcast from Addiction journal, featuring interviews with some of their authors. In episode 48, Ashley discusses her interest in studying whether highly-refined, highly-processed, and naturally-rewarding foods can trigger addictive responses – a question with important consequences for public health, as “we all have to eat; […] you don’t get to opt out of our current food environment”.

“We argue that we need to treat these highly-processed foods, not so much as foods per se but as highly-refined substances that have been engineered to be incredibly rewarding.”

Original article: Highly processed foods can be considered addictive substances based on established scientific criteria. By Ashley Gearhardt and colleague. Published in Addiction (2022).

The debate around ‘food addiction’ has changed over time, from being about individuals, to what is being consumed – in other words, from whether people show signs of addiction in the way they consume food, to whether specific types of foods have addictive properties. The article Rob and Ashley discuss seeks to advance this debate, by proposing a set of standards for evaluating whether foods are addictive.

Ashley draws several parallels between highly-processed foods and tobacco products – pointing out, for example, that both are non-intoxicating (unlike alcohol and illicit drugs), legal, easily accessible, inexpensive, and major causes of preventable disease and death. She then makes the case for using the same four criteria or questions that have previously been used for tobacco products to establish the ‘addictiveness’ of highly-processed foods.

Do they cause compulsive use?

Do they impact mood?

Do they reinforce behaviour?

Do they trigger strong urges or cravings?

Finally, the podcast moves on to some of the health inequalities associated with highly-processed foods. Ashley points out the ‘injustice’ of a food environment where it is often cheaper to access highly-processed foods, and more expensive (or even prohibitively expensive) to access nutritious foods.

“There is a clear social justice issue, where for people who are under-resourced, who don’t have enough money, they are getting pushed aggressively towards highly-processed foods.”

This conversation was condensed and edited for clarity. The full podcast episode is available to download or stream here.

edited by Natalie Davies


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