An analysis of 281 studies from 36 different countries recently found that as many as 14 percent of adults worldwide are addicted to “ultra-processed foods” (UPFs).
The studies also found that 12 percent of children suffer from the same addiction.
Authors of the paper, posted to the BMJ, include University of Michigan psychology professor Ashley Gearhardt and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute assistant professor Alexandra DiFeliceantonio.
“There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of food addiction,” said Gearhardt. “By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”
The study points in particular to foods with a 1:1 carbohydrate to fat ratio, which appears to increase their addictiveness. Many UPFs have heightened levels of both. It also cited additives for taste and mouthfeel as “powerful reinforcers” even when not addictive on their own.
“Given how prevalent these foods are – they make up 58% of calories consumed in the United States – there is so much we don’t know,” DiFeliceantonio added.
“While further 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 leading to deleterious health outcomes,” the paper concluded. Ultra-processed foods high in refined carbohydrates and added fats are highly rewarding, appealing, and consumed compulsively and may be addictive. Behaviors around ultra-processed food may meet the criteria for diagnosis of substance use disorder in some people.”