The Guardian LONDON, England, By Andrew Gregory —  One in seven adults and one in eight children may be hooked on ultra-processed foods (UPFs), experts have said, prompting calls for some products to be labelled as addictive.

Recent studies have linked UPFs such as ice-cream, fizzy drinks and ready meals to poor health, including an increased risk of cancer, weight gain and heart disease. Global consumption of the products is soaring and UPFs now make up more than half the average diet in the UK and US.

Now researchers say the way some people consume such foods could “meet the criteria for diagnosis of substance use disorder”.

Behaviours that could meet this criteria include: intense cravings, symptoms of withdrawal, less control over intake, and continued use despite such consequences as obesity, binge eating disorder, poorer physical and mental health, and lower quality of life, they said.

Analysis of 281 studies from 36 different countries found that “ultra-processed food addiction” was estimated to occur in 14% of adults and 12% of children, the researchers wrote in the BMJ.

The academics said that if some foods high in carbohydrates and fats were to be officially categorised as “addictive”, it could help improve health through changes to social, clinical and political policies.

“There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of food addiction,” said Ashley Gearhardt, the article’s corresponding author and a psychology professor at the University of Michigan in the US.

“By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”

It would also drive more research in these area of UPF, the authors added. Some experts have recently suggested the products are being unfairly demonised. However, all experts say more research is urgently needed to understand the potential implications of UPF for global health.

Co-author Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in the US, added: “Given how prevalent these foods are – they make up 58% of calories consumed in the United States – there is so much we don’t know.”

The researchers, from the US, Brazil and Spain, said: “Refined carbohydrates or fats evoke similar levels of extracellular dopamine in the brain striatum to those seen with addictive substances such as nicotine and alcohol.

“Based on these behavioural and biological parallels, foods that deliver high levels of refined carbohydrates or added fats are a strong candidate for an addictive substance.”

The speed in which these foods deliver carbohydrates and fats to the gut could also play a role in their “addictive potential”, the authors added.

Food additives may also contribute to the “addictiveness of UPFs”, they said. While these additives, which are added to food for taste and to “improve the mouth feel” are unlikely to be addictive on their own, they could “become powerful reinforcers of the effects of calories in the gut”, they wrote.

The academics stressed that not all foods have addictive potential.

But they concluded that while more research was needed to determine how exactly UPFs triggered an addictive response, those that were high in refined carbohydrates and fats were “clearly consumed in addictive patterns” and resulted in harmful health outcomes.

“Ultra-processed foods high in refined carbohydrates and added fats are highly rewarding, appealing, and consumed compulsively and may be addictive,” they continued.

“Behaviours around ultra-processed food may meet the criteria for diagnosis of substance use disorder in some people.

“Ultra-processed food addiction is estimated to occur in 14% of adults and 12% of children and is associated with biopsychological mechanisms of addiction and clinically significant problems.

“Understanding of these foods as addictive could lead to novel approaches in the realm of social justice, clinical care, and policy approaches.”

 The headline and text of this article were amended on 10 October 2023 to make clear this was a report by academics based on a number of previous studies rather than a new study.

Top Feature Photograph: Rene van den Berg/Alamy