When you hear the word “addiction,” what comes to mind? A pack-a-day smoking habit? Empty alcohol bottles lining a dresser? How about cars backed up at the fast food drive-thru? Or a pantry overflowing with fatty, sugary, and salty snacks? While cigarettes and alcohol are commonly recognized as addictive substances, experts say “ultra-processed” foods are dangerous too.
Ultra-processed foods typically contain five or more ingredients — including preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, artificial colors and flavors, salt, sugar, oils, and fats. Soda, chips, ice cream, sweetened breakfast cereal, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and fries are popular examples.
According to a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) by researchers in the United States, Spain, and Brazil, 14% of adults and 12% of children worldwide show signs of ultra-processed food addiction, per the Yale Food Addiction Scale.
The research team reviewed 281 studies across 36 countries and found the numbers to be “similar to the levels of addiction seen for other legal substances in adults,” including 14% in alcohol and 18% in tobacco. That level of implied addiction in children is considered “unprecedented.”