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Tobacco companies pushed addictive "hyperpalatable" foods into US markets

In a new study from the University of Kansas, brands owned by tobacco companies have been shown to favor “hyperpalatable” foods more than their competitors. While most Americans label such products as “junk food,” the scientific community designates these items as “hyperpalatable.” 

Characterized by their intentionally alluring combinations of salts, fats, and sugars, hyperpalatable foods are often hard to resist and even harder to stop consuming.

Selective dissemination

The intriguing connection between the tobacco industry and such foods has roots in the 1980s. During this period, tobacco firms heavily invested in the U.S. food sector. 

Their influence is now being scrutinized, with recent findings suggesting a strategy of “selective dissemination of hyperpalatable foods” to the American masses.

The study, published in the journal Addiction, delves into the dynamics of the U.S. food system. Lead author Professor Tera Fazzino is the associate director of the Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment at the KU Life Span Institute.

Hyperpalatable foods are irrestible

“We used multiple sources of data to examine the question, ‘In what ways were U.S. tobacco companies involved in the promotion and spread of hyperpalatable food into our food system?’” said Professor Fazzino.

“Hyperpalatable foods can be irresistible and difficult to stop eating. They have combinations of palatability-related nutrients, specifically fat, sugar, sodium or other carbohydrates that occur in combinations together.”

Professor Fazzino’s earlier work reveals that 68% of the American food supply now qualifies as hyperpalatable.

Startling data

Professor Fazzino and her team found startling data between 1988 and 2001 which shed light on the link between tobacco companies and hyperpalatable foods.

During this period, foods owned by tobacco companies were significantly more likely to be hyperpalatable, based on their nutrient compositions, than those without tobacco affiliations. 

The researchers used multiple data sources, including internal tobacco industry documents and nutrition data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Unclear intentions

“The question about their intent – we can’t really say from this data,” said Professor Fazzino. “But what we can say is there’s evidence to indicate tobacco companies were consistently involved with owning and developing hyperpalatable foods during the time that they were leading our food system. 

“Their involvement was selective in nature and different from the companies that didn’t have a parent tobacco-company ownership.”

Lasting influence of hyperpalatable foods

Building on work by Laura Schmidt at the University of California-San Francisco, the KU researchers found historical precedents. 

Schmidt’s team revealed that tobacco giants, like R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, not only marketed sugary drinks to children but also employed tactics targeting racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. to promote their food products.

By the mid-2000s, tobacco firms began to withdraw from the U.S. food scene. Still, their influence appears lasting. The study indicates that hyperpalatable foods, regardless of tobacco affiliations, had firmly entrenched themselves in the American diet by 2018.

Prevalence of the issue

“The majority of what’s out there in our food supply falls under the hyperpalatable category. We don’t really have many choices when it comes to picking between foods that are fresh and enjoyable to eat and foods that you just can’t stop eating.”

For Professor Fazzino, understanding hyperpalatability could be instrumental in regulating food composition.

Implications of hyperpalatable foods

“These foods have combinations of ingredients that create effects you don’t get when you eat those ingredients separately,” the KU researcher said. “And guess what? These combinations don’t really exist in nature, so our bodies aren’t ready to handle them. They can excessively trigger our brain’s reward system and disrupt our fullness signals, which is why they’re difficult to resist.”

This means that consumers of hyperpalatable foods are more prone to obesity and related health consequences, even when they don’t intend to overeat.

“These foods may be designed to make you eat more than you planned,” said Professor Fazzino. “It’s not just about personal choice and watching what you eat – they can kind of trick your body into eating more than you actually want.”

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