Fatty foods may be as addictive as cocaine, according to a number of medical studies at leading universities and government laboratories, which suggest that processed foods and sugary drinks made by companies like PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP) and Kraft (NYSE:KFT) can have a similar chemical effect on the brain as many narcotics.
“The data is so overwhelming the field has to accept it,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “We are finding tremendous overlap between drugs in the brain and food in the brain.”
Studies on animal test subjects have found that sugary drinks and fatty foods can produce addictive behavior, while brain scans of obese people and compulsive eaters reveal disturbances in brain reward circuits similar to those observed in drug users.
Twenty-eight scientific studies and papers on food addiction have been published this year alone, and if evidence expands, proving definitively and beyond a doubt that fatty foods and snacks and drinks sweetened with sugar and high fructose corn syrup are addictive, the $1 trillion food and beverage industry might be hit with the biggest consumer safety battle since the anti-smoking movement took on the tobacco industry.
“This could change the legal landscape,” said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. “People knew for a long time cigarettes were killing people, but it was only later they learned about nicotine and the intentional manipulation of it.”
Food company executives and lobbyists are quick to defend the industry. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi says “fun-for-you” foods are fine if eaten in moderation, and says her company is making big strides toward offering consumers a wide range of healthier snacking options. Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), Kellogg (NYSE:K), and Kraft declined to grant interviews with their scientists.
While the food industry might deny their products are to blame for the rising obesity rate in the U.S., there is no denying that obesity is a fast growing problem. A third of adults and 17% of teens and children in the U.S. are obese, and those numbers are increasing. Obesity rates around the world are climbing as well.
And the cost to society is huge. A 2009 study of 900,000 people found that moderate obesity reduces life expectancy by two to four years, while severe obesity shortens it by as many as 10 years. Obesity has been linked to higher instances of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and stroke. The cost of treating obesity-related illnesses was estimated at $147 billion in 2008.
While the human body is programmed to crave sugars and fats, modern processing has created food with concentrated levels of sugars, unhealthy fats, and refined flour, which has none of the redeeming levels of fiber or nutrients. Consuming these foods in large quantities may be changing the way the brain is wired. And to some experts, those changes look a lot like addiction. Highly processed foods can cause rapid spikes and declines in blood sugar and increases cravings, according to David Ludwig, a Harvard researcher and director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Children’s Hospital Boston.
A 2010 study, conducted by scientists at Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida, fed rats a host of unhealthy foods, including Hormel (NYSE:HRL) bacon, Sara Lee (NYSE:SLE) pound cake, The Cheesecake Factory (NASDAQ:CAKE) cheesecake, and Pillsbury cake frosting. Through electrodes implanted on the rats, scientists measured activity in regions of the brain involved in registering rewards and pleasure.
Rats with access to the junk food for one hour a day started binge eating, even when more nutritious food was available all day long. Rats with access to the junk food 18 to 23 hours per day became obese. According to Paul Kenny, the scientist leading the study, the results produced the same brain patterns that occur with escalating intake of cocaine.
Human studies have showed reduced activity in the striatum, a region of hte brain that registers reward, among overweigh subjects. “A career of overeating causes blunted reward receipt, and this is exactly what you see with chronic drug abuse,” said Eric Stice, a researcher at the Oregon Research Institute.
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Despite the studies, the food industry is responding much differently. “We want to see profit growth and revenue growth,” said Tim Hoyle, director of research at Haverford Trust Co. in Radnor, Pennsylvania, an investor in PepsiCo, the world’s largest snack-food maker. “The health foods are good for headlines but when it gets down to it, the growth drivers are the comfort foods, the Tostitos and the Pepsi-Cola.”