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Tobacco company-owned food brands more 'tempting' than competitors: Addiction study

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Tom Joyce

(The Center Square) - Food brands owned by tobacco companies produce foods that are more hyperpalatable than those produced by non-tobacco companies, new research from the University of Kansas shows.

The research found that they are more likely to feature “purposely tempting combinations of salts, fats, and sugars,” according to a press release from the University of Kansas.

The researchers got their study published in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction. A spokesman for the college said that other than the researchers' time, there were no costs associated with the study.

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“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?’” lead author Tera Fazzino, assistant professor of psychology at KU and associate director of the Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment at the KU Life Span Institute, said in the release. “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.”

Fazzino said that 68 percent of the American food supply is hyperpalatable.

“These combinations of nutrients provide a really enhanced eating experience and make them difficult to stop eating,” she said. “These effects are different than if you just had something high in fat but had no sugar, salt, or other type of refined carbohydrate.”

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Between 1988 and 2001, tobacco-owned foods were 29 percent more likely to be fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable and 80 percent more likely to be classified as carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable than foods produced by non-tobacco companies, according to the report.

Researchers determined tobacco company connections to food production, combined with nutrition data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They used the data in longitudinal analyses to estimate how much foods were “formulated to be hyperpalatable based on tobacco ownership,” according to the release.

“The question about their intent —we can’t really say from this data,” Fazzino said. “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.”

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Co-authors on the report included KU doctoral students Daiil Jun and Kayla Bjorlie, plus Lynn Chollet Hinton, assistant professor of biostatistics and data science at KU Medical Center.

Earlier work conducted by Laura Schmidt at the University of California-San Francisco inspired the investigation.

“She and her team established that the same tobacco companies were involved in the development and heavy marketing of sugary drinks to kids — that was R.J. Reynolds — and that Philip Morris was involved in the direct transfer of tobacco marketing strategies targeting racial and ethnic minority communities in the U.S. to sell their food products,” Fazzino said.

Tobacco companies began divesting from food companies in the early 2000s. However, the impact has been permanent, according to the study. It found that “the availability of fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods (more than 57 percent) and carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods (more than 17 percent) was still high in 2018, regardless of prior tobacco ownership, showing these foods have become mainstays of the American diet,” according to the release.

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“The majority of what’s out there in our food supply falls under the hyperpalatable category,” Fazzino said. “It’s actually a bit difficult to track down food that’s not hyperpalatable. In our day-to-day lives, the foods we’re surrounded by and can easily grab are mostly the hyperpalatable ones. And foods that are not hyperpalatable, such as fresh fruits and vegetables – they’re not just hard to find, they’re also more expensive. We don’t really have many choices when it comes to picking between foods that are fresh and enjoyable to eat (e.g., a crisp apple) and foods that you just can’t stop eating.”

Fazzino said metrics calculating hyperpalatability could be one way to “regulate formulations of food that are engineered to induce sustained eating,” according to the release.

“These foods have combinations of ingredients that create effects you don’t get when you eat those ingredients separately,” the KU researcher said in their report. “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.”

Therefore, consumers of these foods are more likely to be obese and face negative health impacts, even when they’re not trying to overeat.

“These foods may be designed to make you eat more than you planned,” Fazzino said. “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.”