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How Big Tobacco created our junk food diet and our obesity epidemic

“Betcha can’t eat just one!” was more than just a 1960s ad slogan for potato chips.

It was part of a concerted effort to engineer junk food loaded with fat, carbohydrates and sodium in combinations that are irresistible to people because they trigger our brains’ reward system, according to a new study .

And these habit-forming foods were created by the same companies that brought us addictive cigarettes.

The new research reveals that, after the government moved to regulate the tobacco industry in the 1960s, tobacco companies responded by investing heavily in food manufacturing to hook new customers.

A nation of junk-food junkies

What tobacco companies chose to create in their newly acquired food companies was highly processed — or “ultraprocessed,” to borrow a current buzzword — junk food that’s as addictive as tobacco.

“And guess what? These combinations don’t really exist in nature, so our bodies aren’t ready to handle them,” Dr. Tera Fazzino, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, said in a statement.

“They can excessively trigger our brain’s reward system … which is why they’re difficult to resist,” Fazzino added. “These foods have combinations of ingredients that create effects you don’t get when you eat those ingredients separately.”

Fazzino and her colleagues at KU analyzed the food brands owned by tobacco companies, which by the 1980s had invested heavily in the US food industry after tobacco sales began to drop.

Tobacco giants like Philip Morris — which owned Kraft Foods and General Foods — and R.J. Reynolds, owner of Del Monte Foods and Nabisco, began to research ways to make their foods irresistible.

Scientists now refer to their sugary-sweet, fatty and salty creations as “hyperpalatable.”

Soon, hyperpalatable foods like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Oreo cookies, Kool-Aid, Jell-O, Hawaiian Punch, Chips Ahoy cookies, Lunchables, Triscuit and Ritz crackers, Oscar Mayer hot dogs and dozens of other goodies began filling store shelves — and consumers’ bellies.

The obesity era begins

Around the same time that tobacco companies bought food makers, rates of obesity — and the subsequent increased risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes — jumped across the US.

Rates of obesity in the US had changed little during the 1960s and 1970s, according to the National Institutes of Health, but soon increased sharply: from 13.4% in 1980 to 34.3% in 2008 among adults, and from 5% to 17% among children.

Now, an estimated 68% of the American food supply is hyperpalatable, and most of those were introduced to consumers when the food makers were owned by tobacco companies. (Some of the aforementioned food makers are no longer owned by tobacco companies.)

According to Fazzino’s research team, foods developed by tobacco-owned corporations were 29% more likely to be fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable, and 80% more likely to be carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable, than foods that were not tobacco-owned.

“Tobacco companies were consistently involved with owning and developing hyperpalatable foods during the time that they were leading our food system,” Fazzino said. “Their involvement was selective in nature and different from the companies that didn’t have a parent tobacco-company ownership.”

Just eat the napkin

The tobacco firms’ interest in food wasn’t accidental: They had decades of extensive scientific research into flavorings, chemical additives and colorings that were used to market cigarettes.

“R.J. Reynolds is in the flavor business,” one insider wrote in a company memo, adding that many of the flavors the company had created for cigarettes “would be useful in food, beverage and other products,” leading to “large financial returns,” the Washington Post reported.

When Philip Morris first sold Lunchables in 1988, the packaged lunch was marketed to busy moms. But the meal was so stuffed with sodium and fat that one Philip Morris exec referred to jokes that the healthiest thing in Lunchables was the napkin.

Designed to be addictive

The success of these hyperpalatable products is rooted in the science behind addiction, according to researchers.

They contain ingredients — some natural, some synthetic — that have been purified, concentrated and are rapidly absorbed into our blood streams, amplifying their ability to light up our brains’ reward centers.

““Every addictive substance is something that we take from nature and we alter it, process it and refine it in a way that makes it more rewarding — and that is very clearly what happened with these hyper-palatable food substances,” Dr. Ashley Gearhardt, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies food addiction, told the Washington Post.

“We treat these foods like they come from nature. Instead, they’re foods that come from big tobacco.”

That’s why people who eat hyperpalatable foods are more prone to obesity and other health problems, even when they don’t intend to overeat.

“These foods may be designed to make you eat more than you planned,” Fazzino said. “It’s not just about personal choice and watching what you eat — they can kind of trick your body into eating more than you actually want.”