In a shocking revelation, a groundbreaking study published on September 8, 2023, has exposed the clandestine involvement of US tobacco giants in the proliferation of hyper-palatable foods (HPF) in the American food system. Conducted by researchers at the University of Kansas, this study provides empirical evidence of how tobacco companies strategically disseminated foods designed to be irresistibly tasty and potentially addictive. The implications of this revelation are far-reaching, shedding light on the intersection of public health, corporate influence, and government regulation.
Background and Aims: The Tobacco-Food Connection
The study delves into the historical connection between tobacco and food industries. Surprisingly, during the years 1980 to 2001, leading tobacco companies like Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds owned major US food corporations. This period coincided with the meteoric rise of hyper-palatable foods, which are characterized by combinations of fat, sugar, sodium, and carbohydrates designed to trigger an artificially rewarding eating experience.
To uncover the extent of tobacco’s involvement in shaping the American food landscape, the researchers combed through primary industry documents, seeking food brands that were owned by tobacco companies. These documents, housed in the University of California San Francisco’s Industry Documents Library, unveiled a comprehensive list of 373 tobacco-owned brands.
Next, the study integrated data sets from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which represent the American food system. The analysis focused on three crucial time periods: 1988, 2001, and 2018, capturing the tobacco companies’ leadership in the food industry.
Key Findings: Tobacco’s Impact on Food Palatability
The study found that during the critical period of 1988 to 2001, foods owned by tobacco companies were found to be 29% more likely to be classified as fat and sodium HPF and a staggering 80% more likely to be carbohydrate and sodium HPF. These statistics indicate that tobacco giants had a significant hand in the development and dissemination of hyper-palatable foods.
Additionally, the researchers observed that in 2018, regardless of their prior tobacco ownership status, these hyper-palatable foods remained highly prevalent in the American food landscape. Fat and sodium HPF were found in over 57% of food products, and carbohydrate and sodium HPF exceeded 17%, suggesting a widespread saturation of these foods in the market.
The study draws parallels between the tactics employed by tobacco companies in maximizing the addictiveness of cigarettes and their approach to crafting hyper-palatable foods. For instance, tobacco companies utilized specific nicotine delivery thresholds and manipulated nicotine delivery to enhance addiction. Similarly, they added ingredients to increase the appeal and acceptability of cigarettes, such as menthol and sugar.
Implications: A New Public Health Concern
This revelation raises serious public health concerns. The prevalence of hyper-palatable foods in the American diet has been linked to overconsumption, obesity, and potential addiction. Despite the mounting evidence of the detrimental health effects of these foods, there are currently no federal regulations addressing their accessibility.
The study suggests that the American food environment today resembles the era of the tobacco epidemic in the 1950s when tobacco products were unregulated. In response to revelations about tobacco industry practices, the US federal government implemented regulations to control the availability and marketing of tobacco products. The study argues that a similar approach may be needed to regulate hyper-palatable foods, given the alarming evidence that the same tobacco companies may have played a role in shaping the current food landscape.
The study’s findings have unveiled a troubling chapter in the history of American corporate influence on public health. The involvement of tobacco giants in the proliferation of hyper-palatable foods highlights the need for regulatory action to protect the well-being of consumers. As the debate over food regulation heats up, one thing is clear: this study has exposed a hidden link between tobacco and food, with potentially dire consequences for public health.
Fevi became an advocate for food is medicine when her dog, Junior, was diagnosed with cancer. In that journey, she discovered how food played such an important role, first in animal health and then eventually, her own health. When she became a Mom, it reinforced the importance of healthy, natural and fresh food. She is a researcher, by profession, and her skills have helped in intimately understanding how the food industry has prioritized profits over health. As the Founder of Source Partners, she hopes to support the next evolution (perhaps, revolution) of the food industry.