Some ultra-processed foods warrant ‘addictive’ labels, scientists suggest

A team of international researchers reviewed 281 studies from 36 different countries and found that one in seven adults and one in eight children are addicted to ultra-processed foods (UPFs). Furthermore, the new report published in BMJ finds that the way some people consume these foods that are high in fat and carbohydrates could meet the criteria for substance use disorder. Because of this, they recommend labeling some UPFs as “addictive” because this might change people’s behavior and attitudes.

“This reported prevalence is similar to the levels of addiction seen for other legal substances in adults (eg, 14% for alcohol and 18% for tobacco), but the level of implied addiction in children is unprecedented,” the report reads.

So how do you know if you are struggling with a UPF addiction? Scientists say you could have intense cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and continued consumption despite negative consequences like obesity, binge eating disorder and less control over intake. A substance use disorder is defined as the presence of two or more symptoms in the past year and clinically significant impairment or distress.

Researchers say that more research is needed to determine the exact mechanism by which these foods trigger addiction, but UPFs high in refined carbohydrates and fats are “clearly consumed in addictive behaviors and are leading to deleterious health outcomes.” The report also reveals that refined carbs and fats trigger a release of dopamine in the brain’s striatum, similar to what we see with addictive substances like nicotine or alcohol.

While there’s still debate on which types of food truly are addictive, researchers say classifying UPFs as addictive could stimulate research and shift attitudes to regulation.

Critics of the idea point out that specific addictive chemicals, such as nicotine for tobacco addiction, have not been identified for foods.