Alex DiFeliceantonio, left, prepares food samples in the metabolic kitchen with researchers at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion in Roanoke. DiFeliceantonio’s recent research investigates the influence of ultra-processed foods on reward processing and energy intake. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.
Alex DiFeliceantonio, left, prepares food samples in the metabolic kitchen with researchers at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion in Roanoke. DiFeliceantonio’s recent research investigates the influence of ultra-processed foods on reward processing and energy intake. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.

A recent article from professors at Virginia Tech and University of Michigan has shed new light on the addictive nature of highly processed foods, likening them to tobacco. 

Alex DiFeliceantonio, associate director of the Center for Health Behaviors Research at Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology campus, co-authored the article with Ashley Gearhardt, associate professor of psychology at University of Michigan, comparing highly processed foods (HPFs) to tobacco products in their dopamine-inducing, addictive properties.

DiFeliceantonio described these foods as specifically engineered to keep people coming back, similar to the use of cigarettes as a vehicle for tobacco and nicotine.

“You have created this product that’s really good at delivering something addictive. And that’s where I really see the parallel between the two,” DiFeliceantonio said.

Alex DiFeliceantonio. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.

This article comes ahead of further research in the coming months. The Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech recently received more than $1.2 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health to explore the health effects of HPFs. DiFeliceantonio will be among those using this funding. 

“We have a lot of really rigorous and elegant experiments for addictive drugs. We just don’t really don’t have the exact same set of experiments for foods,” DiFeliceantonio said.

In western Virginia and nationwide, people are facing dual crises in their diets. As nutritional whole foods continue to be inaccessible or unaffordable for many, HPFs fill store shelves.

Per nutrition scientists at Harvard, HPFs are characterized by the presence of artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, as well as additional fats, sugars and salts that go beyond regular food processing. Examples include frozen meals, fast food, and many of the packaged foods found in the center aisles of a supermarket. DiFeliceantonio differentiated these from other types of processed foods that make up a typical diet.

“Fortified foods, like milk and grains, have actually improved the health of a large number of people,” DiFeliceantonio said. “But when we get into the stages of really highly processed foods, that is where we really start to see these poor health effects.”

A study published in 2021 found that, from 2001 to 2018, consumption of HPFs increased across the country while consumption of whole foods, like vegetables, fruits, dairy, and meats, dropped.

Those in food deserts, areas with scarce supplies of affordable, fresh food, are even more affected. The Virginia Food Desert Task Force in 2014 estimated that nearly 18 percent of Virginians are living in food deserts, with southern and western parts of the state being particularly impacted. Many of them are in poorer urban areas, rural communities and communities of color, and the effects of the pandemic exacerbated these disparities.

This trend in eating habits has serious consequences. More than 34 percent of adults in Virginia are struggling with obesity, commonly associated with diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments. And experts say that these side effects are just some of the dangers at play.

“We know that highly processed food consumption is associated with various types of cancer, as well as all-cause mortality,” DiFeliceantonio said. “So it’s not simply that these foods are leading to overeating.”

While there is no consistent definition for addictive substances, this study on HPFs employed the three criteria from the 1988 Surgeon General’s report on tobacco and addictive substances: they are used compulsively, they increase positive mood, and those addicted will work to obtain them. 

The two researchers also added a fourth: that they trigger “strong urges and cravings” on a chemical level. This is key, as it’s what makes HPFs such a hard habit to kick, even with education and availability of healthier alternatives.

“If you have someone that’s trying to quit an addictive substance, you tell them to avoid the people that they took the drug with, tell them to avoid places that they took the drug, tell them to avoid signs of the drug,” DiFeliceantonio said.

“And so this is something that I find really difficult with highly processed foods, because you can’t take the same approach. Because they’re literally everywhere.”

The research is recent, but its premise is hardly new. Studies and reports comparing these foods to tobacco products date back decades. Reporting from Frontline PBS on the landmark 1997 tobacco deal, in which tobacco companies paid out billions in public health damages, cited these companies also owned shares in major food brands. Later research found that they used the same marketing techniques to sell sugary drinks to children as they did to sell cigarettes.

Today, experts are looking at HPFs not only in terms of their chemical compositions, but also how companies market them to elevate their addictive qualities both in the U.S. and around the world.

A policy brief from Unicef, which looked at the effect these campaigns were having on children across the globe, also found that these companies especially targeted young people through social media at high rates, and at ages when they are more susceptible to build lifelong habits.

Vivica Kraak, associate professor of food and nutrition policy at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, has spent much of her career studying food insecurity and obesity, and has recently conducted research focused on media campaigns by food companies.

Kraak said right now, policymakers aren’t doing enough to reign in predatory marketing from the HPF industry in the U.S., and federal leaders and agencies have taken an approach driven by messaging around personal choice regarding these addictive foods.

“The industry is so powerful, so influential. And they sort of minimize this and just bring in the individual responsibility rhetoric,” Kraak said. “That’s why I think we have to change the narrative to: this is a corporate accountability problem.”

While there are federal regulations against false or misleading advertising of food products, the federal government and the state of Virginia have been largely silent on more specifically regulating HPF marketing. There has, however, been a renewed investment in expanding access to healthy, whole foods over the last few years.

President Joe Biden recently held a White House conference on hunger nutrition and health, the first in over 50 years, with the goal of addressing “diet-related diseases and disparities.” And advocates hope that the federal farm bill, which renews for another five years at the start of 2023, will also have additional subsidies for states to increase food security.

On a state level, former Gov. Northam made nutritional food access a cornerstone of his tenure in office. He signed a series of bills to address food insecurity during the pandemic, and pushed for grant funding to increase access to food banks, along with numerous other projects. One project, Virginia Fresh Match, allows those with food stamps to receive additional funds to incentivize purchases of fresh foods from farmer’s markets rather than cheaper, preservative-laden alternatives.

Connie Kenny, left, market manager for Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP), and teacher Bethany Todd stand with Todd’s students at a mobile market at Highland Park Elementary School in Roanoke. Part of LEAP’s mission is to educate and make locally farmed produce more available to community members. Courtesy of Local Environmental Agriculture Project.

Virginia is also home to numerous nonprofits focused on sustainable food access, including Local Environmental Agriculture Project, or LEAP. The Roanoke-based organization, among many things, supports local farmers and connects residents with healthy, locally sourced foods in community and mobile markets. They also collaborate with other businesses and organizations on sustainability and larger food system goals.

Maureen McGonagle, the director of regional partnerships at LEAP, sees increased access to healthy, locally grown foods as essential to addressing the nutritional gaps in people’s diets.

“It really comes down to shifting what people have access to so that their choices can be different,” McGonagle said.

McGonagle has spent much of her adult life thinking about food in terms of health, environment, and equity. She grew up in Arlington and moved to Blacksburg to study sustainability at Virginia Tech. After college, she took a range of food-related jobs in the area, including working on a farm and in a co-op. 

Through this work, McGonagle developed a passion for community food systems. She also gained an understanding of the complex challenges that exist in accessing nutritional food in food deserts. While barriers like cost, distance, distribution, and the lasting effects of systemic racism are all playing key roles, there are deeper cultural barriers as well in a more industrialized world.

“Modernity is stripping away our ties to our food cultures that really make food something integral and valuable in our lives,” McGonagle said.

McGonagle sees local farms and both mobile and local farmer’s markets as part of a larger sustainable solution to supply chain issues and climate change. They can also help the public health crisis that exists in the American diet.

“The lens that I kind of prefer to take is: how do we begin to change our larger built environment, our larger systems and our larger cultural narrative around food to basically empower people to have the choice and capacity in their life to be able to nourish their bodies?” McGonagle said.

Concerns remain among experts, however, about the other half of the equation: if the marketing of unhealthy, addictive foods remains unregulated, and policy makers do not become more strategic in their messaging, having healthier alternatives won’t be enough. 

“It’s a wicked, wicked problem,” Kraak, the policy expert, said.

While McGonagle acknowledges there are no simple solutions to any of this, she feels optimistic about her community in Roanoke and throughout Virginia. As of late, she’s seen an increased “culture of collaboration” among organizations, businesses, and community members to solve challenges around nutritional food access and equity for people across the region.

“Instead of a competitive approach, they’re really leaning into the value of working together,” McGonagle said. “And that really brings me a lot of inspiration and a lot of hope.”

Updated to clarify the Fralin Institute’s relationship with the school.

Laura Bargfeld

Laura Bargfeld is a multimedia reporter. They recently graduated from Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. While there, they worked as a fellow in...