Ultra processed foods the tobacco of the 21st century

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

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

One of the great public health successes of recent years, but one that is surprisingly little talked about, is the spectacular decline in smoking among young people. Exorbitant tobacco prices, its displacement from public places, and the emergence of alternative sources of nicotine such as electronic cigarettes have combined to reduce the proportion of young people aged 15-19 who smoke cigarettes every day from 30% by the late 1990s is down to just 3% in 2020.

This is extremely encouraging given that tobacco addiction generally begins very early, with 9 out of 10 smokers starting in adolescence.

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


In 1988, the American Surgeon General published a report unequivocally demonstrating the addictive properties of tobacco (then denied by tobacco companies).(1)

This report found that four criteria are sufficient to presume that a substance is addictive:

1) it causes compulsive use;

2) it exerts psychoactive effects;

3) it encourages repetition of its use; and

4) it creates strong desires and feelings of lack.

This report marked a turning point in the fight against tobacco as, for the first time, a clear awareness of the addictive potential of cigarettes radicalized public and medical community attitudes to the dangers of tobacco use and led to strong societal action to reduce smoking.


A downside to the success of radical smoking reduction is that it has been associated with a significant increase in the prevalence of overweight and obesity, such that the public health gains from reductions in smoking rates are offset by an increased risk of many diseases associated with excess fat.

The reasons for this significant increase in obesity are varied and complex, but there is consensus that consumption of ultra-processed foods (fast food, ubiquitous snacks, convenience foods) overloaded with fat, sugar and salt is a major contributor Phenomenon plays an important role.

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

If you look at all the studies that have dealt with this question, the parallel between cigarettes and these foods is striking:

1) Compulsivity: It’s well known that ultra-processed foods can lead to excess caloric intake, although most people are aware of their disastrous health effects. An extreme example of this type of compulsion is the large proportion (20-50%) of people who have had bariatric surgery who insist on over-consuming these foods even when they are experiencing significant physical symptoms (nausea, cramps, cause vomiting).

2) Psychoactive effects: All addictive substances are known to 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 on a similar scale to nicotine.

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

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


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

This is to forget that ultra-processed foods are not foods in the usual sense. Rather, they are purely industrial creations designed to rapidly release unusually high levels of sugar, fat, and salt to overstimulate our brain and encourage its repeated overconsumption, like the cigarette did for nicotine addiction.

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

(1) United States Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). Health Consequences of Smoking: Nicotine Addiction. A report from the Surgeon General1988

(2) Gearhardt AN and AG DiFeliceantonio. Heavily processed foods can be considered addictive substances according to established scientific criteria. Seekspublished on November 9, 2022.