Highly processed foods can be considered addictive substances based on established scientific criteria
Background: There is growing evidence that an addictive-eating phenotype may exist. There is significant debate regarding whether highly processed foods (HPFs; foods with refined carbohydrates and/or added fats) are addictive. The lack of scientifically grounded criteria to evaluate the addictive nature of HPFs has hindered the resolution of this debate. Analysis: The most recent scientific debate regarding a substance’s addictive potential centered around tobacco. In 1988, the Surgeon General issued a report identifying tobacco products as addictive based on three primary scientific criteria: their ability to (1) cause highly controlled or compulsive use, (2) cause psychoactive (i.e. mood-altering) effects via their effect on the brain and (3) reinforce behavior. Scientific advances have now identified the ability of tobacco products to (4) trigger strong urges or craving as another important indicator of addictive potential. Here, we propose that these four criteria provide scientifically valid benchmarks that can be used to evaluate the addictiveness of HPFs. Then, we review the evidence regarding whether HPFs meet each criterion. Finally, we consider the implications of labeling HPFs as addictive. Conclusion: Highly processed foods (HPFs) can meet the criteria to be labeled as addictive substances using the standards set for tobacco products. The addictive potential of HPFs may be a key factor contributing to the high public health costs associated with a food environment dominated by cheap, accessible and heavily marketed HPFs.