Labeling foods such as crisps, chocolate and ice cream as “addictive” could help curb obesity rates, according to a major review.
Comparing it to tobacco and alcohol, researchers said the way some people consume foods high in refined carbohydrates and fats “meets the criteria for the diagnosis of substance use disorder.”
They estimate that one in seven adults and one in eight children are addicted to ultra-processed foods, which can lead to intense cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and less control over how much they eat.
This despite knowing the harmful consequences such as obesity, poorer physical and mental health and a lower quality of life.
Scientists have previously told DailyMail.com that junk food should be included in the same category as drugs because of how addictive and harmful they can be.
The warning would be similar to that on vaping products (shown) that warn about the addictive nature of nicotine.
In the new study, international researchers analyzed 281 studies from 36 different countries and found that approximately 14 percent of adults and 12 percent of children experience addiction to ultra-processed foods.
While natural foods (such as fruits, vegetables, stockings, and fish) tend to provide energy in the form of carbohydrates or fats, industrially processed foods tend to contain both.
Giving the example of a serving of salmon, an apple, and a bar of chocolate, the salmon has a carbohydrate-to-fat ratio of approximately 0 to 1 and the apple 1 to 0.
However, a chocolate bar has a carbohydrate-to-fat ratio of 1 to 1, which appears to increase a food’s addictive potential, they said.
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Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, Virginia, said: “Most foods we consider natural or minimally processed provide energy in the form of carbohydrates or fats, but not both.”
‘Many ultra-processed foods have higher levels of both. That combination has a different effect on the brain.’
Studies have suggested that refined carbohydrates or fats evoke similar levels of extracellular dopamine in the brain’s striatum to those seen with addictive substances such as nicotine and alcohol.
The rate at which these foods transport carbohydrates and fats to the intestine could also influence their addictive potential.
And while food additives are not thought to be addictive on their own, they may contribute to the overall addictiveness of ultra-processed foods, the researchers suggest, and “become powerful enhancers of the effects of calories in the gut.”
Based on these biological and behavioral parallels, foods containing high levels of refined carbohydrates or added fats are strong candidates for being an addictive substance, according to the study published in the BMJ.
They conclude: “Ultra-processed foods high in refined carbohydrates and added fats are highly rewarding, appealing, compulsively consumed, and can be addictive.”
“While more careful research is needed to determine the exact mechanism by which these foods trigger addictive responses, UPFs high in refined carbohydrates and fats are clearly consumed in addictive patterns and are causing harmful health outcomes.”
Ultra-processed foods such as breakfast cereals, cakes and yoghurts make up more than half of the average British diet.
Experts believe that recognizing that foods high in carbohydrates and fats are addictive could improve health through changes in social, clinical and political policies.
Dr Chris van Tulleken, whose book Ultra-Processed People was recently serialized in the Daily Mail, calls for a warning label system in the UK.
Speaking at Randox’s Cost of Poor Nutrition conference last month, he said marketing tools developed by the tobacco industry were now being used by food giants.
He said: “We have so much evidence that ultra-processed foods are addictive, that they are designed to be addictive.” We know that with ultra-processed foods the caloric reward is very fast compared to real foods.
“And once the sugar is in your gut, you get a huge high and that’s what you get addicted to.”