Ultra-processed foods like sugary sweets, donuts and crisps should be classified as drugs, says researchers, as they contain high amounts of preservatives, artificial flavouring and sweeteners. The ingredients that give these products their delicious flavours also makes them very high in fat, salt and sugar which can lead to obesity, heart failure and other diseases.
The researchers, led by Dr Ashley Gearhardt at University of Michigan, suggest that marketing of these products to children should be restricted in the same way that alcohol and nicotine are. They also warned that the amount of artificial ingredients has made the products taste too far from what natural foods taste like.
Dr Alexandra DiFeliceantoni, a health behaviours research professor at Virginia Tech University, told a national newspaper: “They are industrial produced substances designed to deliver sugar and fat. They are not foods anymore. These are these products that have been really well designed to deliver addictive substances.”
A recent NHS survey shows that 25.3 percent of people over 18 in the UK were living with obesity, and the numbers increase in more deprived areas. Among the most deprived, numbers reached 36.8 percent.
But Dr Gearhardt warned that even healthy people are at risk of developing cancer and other diseases by consuming ultra-processed junk food. A consistent spike in blood-sugar can lead to diabetes, and high consumption can lead to Alzheimers.
Global rates of early onset breast, pancreatic and colon cancer have spiked in people under 50 according to recent studies. And experts are in part blaming ‘westernised diets’ and obesity rates as main causes.
Dr Gearhardt and Dr DiFeliceantoni have compared their findings with previous studies on nicotine addiction and applied the standards of those studies to high-processed foods. One of the similarities was compulsive use, where a person wants to eat the foods despite knowing the health risks.
“People want to cut down, people go on diets and a vast majority of people fail. They find it difficult to do so even when they know it’s going to kill them”, said Dr Gearhardt.
She said sugar and fat trigger an addictive response in the brain that makes the consumer want more. She added that while more studies on how these substances affect the brain are needed, the speed at which the body processes them can play a role.
Some of these quick hits may be compared to the effects of things like nicotine, alcohol and even cocaine. And the researchers believe that the desire to seek out the foods again despite not needing them, just like other drugs.
Because of this, the pair has pushed for the need to market ultra-processed foods like nicotine or other harmful substances. Dr Gearhardt added: “The consequences of this are becoming so stark that we need to take action.”