How Major Tobacco Companies Engineered America’s Junk Food Diet and Contributed to the Obesity Epidemic

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A recent study published in the journal Addiction sheds light on how major tobacco companies played a significant role in creating America’s junk food diet and contributing to the obesity epidemic that plagues the nation today.

Major Tobacco companies created America’s junk food diet and obesity epidemic

The study reveals a deliberate effort by these tobacco giants to engineer highly addictive, ultra-processed junk foods that are loaded with fat, carbohydrates, and sodium, all of which stimulate the brain’s reward system.

Following government regulations imposed on the tobacco industry in the 1960s, tobacco companies redirected their investments into the food manufacturing sector to attract new consumers. The result was a nation of junk food addicts, as tobacco corporations began churning out hyperpalatable foods that were as addictive as their tobacco products.

These hyperpalatable foods, characterized by their unique combinations of ingredients that do not exist in nature, proved difficult for individuals to resist due to their powerful effects on the brain’s reward system.

Tobacco giants such as Philip Morris, which owned Kraft Foods and General Foods, and R.J. Reynolds, the owner of Del Monte Foods and Nabisco, embarked on extensive research to make their food products irresistible.

This led to the creation of iconic products like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Oreo cookies, Kool-Aid, Jell-O, Hawaiian Punch, Chips Ahoy! cookies, Lunchables, Triscuit and Ritz crackers, Oscar Mayer hot dogs, and numerous others, which flooded store shelves and became staples in American households.

Coining the term “hyperpalatable” to describe these sugary, fatty, and salty concoctions, scientists pointed out that the combination of ingredients used in these foods produces effects that are not experienced when consuming the ingredients individually.

The consequences of this shift were profound. Simultaneously with tobacco companies entering the food industry, rates of obesity in the United States began to soar, leading to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

While obesity rates had remained relatively stable during the 1960s and 1970s, they escalated dramatically, with adult obesity increasing from 13.4% in 1980 to 34.3% in 2008, and childhood obesity rising from 5% to 17%.

Today, approximately 68% of the American food supply is composed of hyperpalatable foods, many of which originated from the portfolios of tobacco-owned food companies. Although some of these food manufacturers have since severed ties with tobacco companies, the legacy of their hyperpalatable products remains.

The research conducted by Tera Fazzino and her team at the University of Kansas found that foods developed by tobacco-owned corporations were 29% more likely to be fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable and 80% more likely to be carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable compared to non-tobacco-owned foods.

This involvement of tobacco companies in shaping the American food landscape was selective and distinctive from companies without tobacco industry ownership.

In summary, this study highlights how tobacco companies transitioned into the food industry and deliberately engineered hyperpalatable junk foods that have played a significant role in fueling the obesity epidemic in the United States.

The consequences of this shift continue to affect the nation’s health, making it a critical issue for public awareness and policy consideration.


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