Home The "Study" Guide More Studies Showing That Processed Food Is As Addictive As Cocaine

More Studies Showing That Processed Food Is As Addictive As Cocaine

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Thank @Curvy_CEO for this one. If you don’t care to read all of it, the important stuff is bolded:

Cupcakes may be addictive, just like cocaine.

A growing body of medical research at leading universities and government laboratories suggests that processed foods and sugary drinks made by the likes of PepsiCo Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc. aren’t simply unhealthy. They can hijack the brain in ways that resemble addictions to cocaine, nicotine and other drugs.

“The data is so overwhelming the field has to accept it,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “We are finding tremendous overlap between drugs in the brain and food in the brain.”

The idea that food may be addictive was barely on scientists’ radar a decade ago. Now the field is heating up. Lab studies have found sugary drinks and fatty foods can produce addictive behavior in animals. Brain scans of obese people and compulsive eaters, meanwhile, reveal disturbances in brain reward circuits similar to those experienced by drug abusers.

Twenty-eight scientific studies and papers on food addiction have been published this year, according to a National Library of Medicine database. As the evidence expands, the science of addiction could become a game changer for the $1 trillion food and beverage industries.

If fatty foods and snacks and drinks sweetened with sugar and high fructose corn syrup are proven to be addictive, food companies may face the most drawn-out consumer safety battle since the anti-smoking movement took on the tobacco industry a generation ago.


“This could change the legal landscape,” said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and a proponent of anti-obesity regulation. “People knew for a long time cigarettes were killing people, but it was only later they learned about nicotine and the intentional manipulation of it.”

Food company executives and lobbyists are quick to counter that nothing has been proven, that nothing is wrong with what PepsiCo Chief Executive Officer Indra Nooyi calls “fun-for- you” foods, if eaten in moderation. In fact, the companies say they’re making big strides toward offering consumers a wide range of healthier snacking options. Nooyi, for one, is as well known for calling attention to PepsiCo’s progress offering healthier fare as she is for driving sales.

Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo, Northfield, Illinois-based Kraft and Kellogg Co. of Battle Creek, Michigan, declined to grant interviews with their scientists.

No one disputes that obesity is a fast growing global problem. In the U.S., a third of adults and 17 percent of teens and children are obese, and those numbers are increasing. Across the globe, from Latin America, to Europe to Pacific Island nations, obesity rates are also climbing.

Cost to Society

The cost to society is enormous. A 2009 study of 900,000 people, published in The Lancet, found that moderate obesity reduces life expectancy by two to four years, while severe obesity shortens life expectancy by as much as 10 years. Obesity has been shown to boost the risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The costs of treating illness associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion in 2008, according to a 2009 study in Health Affairs.

Sugars and fats, of course, have always been present in the human diet and our bodies are programmed to crave them. What has changed is modern processing that creates food with concentrated levels of sugars, unhealthy fats and refined flour, without redeeming levels of fiber or nutrients, obesity experts said. Consumption of large quantities of those processed foods may be changing the way the brain is wired.

A Lot Like Addiction

Those changes look a lot like addiction to some experts. Addiction “is a loaded term, but there are aspects of the modern diet that can elicit behavior that resembles addiction,” said David Ludwig, a Harvard researcher and director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Children’s Hospital Boston. Highly processed foods may cause rapid spikes and declines in blood sugar, increasing cravings, his research has found.

Education, diets and drugs to treat obesity have proven largely ineffective and the new science of obesity may explain why, proponents say. Constant stimulation with tasty, calorie- laden foods may desensitize the brain’s circuitry, leading people to consume greater quantities of junk food to maintain a constant state of pleasure.

In one 2010 study, scientists at Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida, fed rats an array of fatty and sugary products including Hormel Foods Corp. bacon, Sara Lee Corp. pound cake, The Cheesecake Factory Inc. cheesecake and Pillsbury Co. Creamy Supreme cake frosting. The study measured activity in regions of the brain involved in registering reward and pleasure through electrodes implanted in the rats.

Binge-Eating Rats

The rats that had access to these foods for one hour a day started binge eating, even when more nutritious food was available all day long. Other groups of rats that had access to the sweets and fatty foods for 18 to 23 hours per day became obese, Paul Kenny, the Scripps scientist heading the study wrote in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The results produced the same brain pattern that occurs with escalating intake of cocaine, he wrote.

“To see food do the same thing was mind-boggling,” Kenny later said in an interview.

Researchers are finding that damage to the brain’s reward centers may occur when people eat excessive quantities of food.

Sweet Rewards

In one 2010 study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas in Austin and the Oregon Research Institute, a nonprofit group that studies human behavior, 26 overweight young women were given magnetic resonance imaging scans as they got sips of a milkshake made with Haagen-Dazs ice cream and Hershey Co.’s chocolate syrup.

The same women got repeat MRI scans six months later. Those who had gained weight showed reduced activity in the striatum, a region of the brain that registers reward, when they sipped milkshakes the second time, according to the study results, published last year in the Journal of Neuroscience.

“A career of overeating causes blunted reward receipt, and this is exactly what you see with chronic drug abuse,” said Eric Stice, a researcher at the Oregon Research Institute.

Scientists studying food addiction have had to overcome skepticism, even from their peers. In the late 1990s, NIDA’s Volkow, then a drug addiction researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, applied for a National Institutes of Health grant to scan obese people to see whether their brain reward centers were affected. Her grant proposal was turned down.

Finding Evidence

“I couldn’t get it funded,” she said in an interview. “The response was, there is no evidence that food produces addictive-like behaviors in the brain.”

Volkow, working with Brookhaven researcher Gene-Jack Wang, cobbled together funding from another government agency to conduct a study using a brain scanning device capable of measuring chemical activity inside the body using radioactive tracers.

Researchers were able to map dopamine receptor levels in the brains of 10 obese volunteers. Dopamine is a chemical produced in the brain that signals reward. Natural boosters of dopamine include exercise and sexual activity, but drugs such as cocaine and heroin also stimulate the chemical in large quantities.

In drug abusers, brain receptors that receive the dopamine signal may become unresponsive with increased drug usage, causing drug abusers to steadily increase their dosage in search of the same high. The Brookhaven study found that the obese people also had lowered levels of dopamine receptors compared with a lean control group.

Addicted to Sugar

The same year, psychologists at Princeton University began studying whether lab rats could become addicted to a 10 percent solution of sugar water, about the same percentage of sugar contained in most soft drinks.

An occasional drink caused no problems for the lab animals. Yet the researchers found dramatic effects when the rats were allowed to drink sugar-water every day. Over time they drank “more and more and more” while eating less of their usual diet, said Nicole Avena, who began the work as a graduate student at Princeton and is now a neuroscientist at the University of Florida.

The animals also showed withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, shakes and tremors, when the effect of the sugar was blocked with a drug. The scientists, moreover, were able to determine changes in the levels of dopamine in the brain, similar to those seen in animals on addictive drugs.

Similar Behavior

“We consistently found that the changes we were observing in the rats binging on sugar were like what we would see if the animals were addicted to drugs,” said Avena, who for years worked closely with the late Princeton psychologist, Bartley Hoebel, who died this year.

While the animals didn’t become obese on sugar water alone, they became overweight when Avena and her colleagues offered them water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.

A 2007 French experiment stunned researchers when it showed that rats prefer water sweetened with saccharine or sugar to hits of cocaine — exactly the opposite of what existing dogma would have suggested.

“It was a big surprise,” said Serge Ahmed, a neuroscientist who led the research for the French National Research Council at the University of Bordeaux.

Yale’s Brownell helped organize one of the first conferences on food addiction in 2007. Since then, a protégé, Ashley Gearhardt, devised a 25-question survey to help researchers spot people with eating habits that resemble addictive behavior.

Pictures of Milkshakes

She and her colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging to examine brain activity of women scoring high on the survey. Pictures of milkshakes lit up the same brain regions that become hyperactive in alcoholics anticipating a drink, according to results published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in April.

Food addiction research may reinvigorate the search for effective obesity drugs, said Mark Gold, who chairs the psychiatry department at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Gold said the treatments he is working on seek to alter food preferences without suppressing overall appetite.

Developing Treatments

“We are trying to develop treatments that interfere with pathological food preferences,” he said. “Let’s say you are addicted to ice cream, you might come up with a treatment that blocked your interest in ice cream, but doesn’t affect your interest in meat.”

In related work, Shire Plc, a Dublin-based drugmaker, is testing its Vyvanse hyperactivity drug in patients with binge- eating problems.

Not everyone is convinced. Swansea University psychologist David Benton recently published a 16-page rebuttal to sugar addiction studies. The paper, partly funded by the World Sugar Research Organization, which includes Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, the world’s largest soft-drink maker, argues that food doesn’t produce the same kind of intense dopamine release seen with drugs and that blocking certain brain receptors doesn’t produce withdrawal symptoms in binge-eaters as it does in drug abusers.

Industry Response

What’s still unknown is whether the science of food addition has begun to change the thinking among food and beverage companies, which are, after all, primarily in the business of selling the Doritos, Twinkies and other fare people crave.

About 80 percent of Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo’s marketing budget, for instance, is directed toward pushing salty snacks and sodas. Although companies are quick to point to their healthier offerings, their top executives are constantly called upon to reassure investors those sales of snack foods and sodas are showing steady growth.

“We want to see profit growth and revenue growth,” said Tim Hoyle, director of research at Haverford Trust Co. in Radnor, Pennsylvania, an investor in PepsiCo, the world’s largest snack-food maker. “The health foods are good for headlines but when it gets down to it, the growth drivers are the comfort foods, the Tostitos and the Pepsi-Cola.”

Little wonder that the food industry is pushing hard on the idea that the best way to get a handle on obesity is through voluntary measures and by offering healthier choices. The same tactic worked for awhile, decades ago, for the tobacco industry, which deflected attention from the health risks and addictive nature of cigarettes with “low tar and nicotine” marketing.

Food industry lobbyists don’t buy that argument — or even the idea that food addiction may exist. Said Richard Adamson, a pharmacologist and consultant for the American Beverage Association: “I have never heard of anyone robbing a bank to get money to buy a candy bar or ice cream or pop.”

I’m just… I’m incredulous.
Thoughts? Let’s chat.

You may also like


marie December 27, 2011 - 4:55 PM


This is why I often feel I have no power to escape from “comfort foods” :/

I actually realize the food industry (and any industry actually) is really making a fool of ourselves and do whatever they want with our health, body (image), money […]

Seriously with this amount of information, it is high time to take real action and regain control of our health. But with this addiction thing? If it is like cocaine… it means that the journey towards “health” is even longer than I expected… and maybe that could we never recover from this???

I mean in the movies the cocaine/ganja/blabla addicts they struggle so much and never recover… does it mean people will soon die of “food overdose” ??

(no no I am not getting hysterical in front of my keyboard right now!!!

CC December 27, 2011 - 9:44 PM

I wholeheartedly agree with this article. But my question is, how do I curb my addiction? I’ve tried several times to stop drinking Pepsi and stop eating Reese Cups, but for some reason I just cant.

Alisha December 28, 2011 - 12:16 PM

I’m with Marie. What does that mean for us that are already addicted? And what does that mean for the next generation??

Starry December 29, 2011 - 12:10 PM

Okay, this post isn’t related to the frankly unsurprising yet still deeply shocking information presented here – let’s be honest, from our own experiences and the stories and info presented on this site, we shouldn’t be too taken aback by this information.

BUT – the bit that really struck me was that PepsiCo’s CEO is an Indian woman – OMG! I had no idea! I’m sort of torn between ‘wow! That’s really amazing!’ and ‘eh, what a shame it is for a company that makes such dreadfully unhealthy food and drink… 🙁 ‘

Mike January 3, 2012 - 9:07 AM

A great reason to get rid of ‘kid’s meals.’ The fast food chains want to get them addicted at an early age.

V July 1, 2012 - 6:24 AM

These foods should come with warning labels. I am happy I have not been buying those types of food anymore.

Paulette July 1, 2012 - 2:25 PM

I learned by reading The End of Overeating that processed food is “engineered” for us to want more and more of it. Once I found out that I was being “tricked” into eating my self sick, I was able to start having food control me. I do still have trouble with some items, but I make sure I don’t eat out of the bag or I aware of what is supposed to be the portion size.

Knowledge is power.

Erika Nicole Kendall July 1, 2012 - 7:20 PM

I LOVE that book. Listen to it EVERY year.

Biolobri July 2, 2012 - 9:08 AM

What concerns me is that these companies can continue to say their products are fine and “calories in/calories out blahblahblah” when 1 in 3 homeless people (who subsist mostly on cheap, processed foods) are obese. To be malnourished and obese tells me there is a bigger problem here. (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/06/homeless-obesity/)

Also, Theresa Reyes at UPenn has discovered that maternal diets that are calorically sufficient but nutritionally insufficient can result in schizophrenia, ADHD, and addiction (both to drugs and food) in the pups. (And all these people yell about how made up ADHD is because there are so many cases these days. Hm, wonder why that could be.) Other research shows our taste preferences develop in utero. This war starts long before we have a say in it.

(P.S. – I’m so excited to become a REAL part of this conversation when I start my graduate studies on the neuroscience of food addiction/obesity this fall!)

Katie July 2, 2012 - 10:35 AM

This is fascinating – it explains a hell of a lot not just about the emotional side of eating comforting processed foods, but about the physical side too. It’s kinda scary – I’m definitely familiar with the feeling of eating way beyond the point of being full and I definitely see that in hindsight as a compulsion.

Let’s hope as part of a growing body of research on the topic people realise how bad this processed crap is!

Lorrie July 2, 2012 - 12:45 PM

Come on! I am not sure why all these studies are required to prove the obvious but If you research how companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola began, they were using “coke” in the drinks. This is why Coca-Cola is called Coke. Even today they still use a derivative of the plant. The drinks were originally introduced for medicinal purposes then for recreational use (hmmm…what else is abused for recreational use?). The idea was to provide a happy drink to consumers and at the same time make money, alot of money. The original street vendors who sold this product were peddlers, con men, pushers, irreprehensible-type-men who were out to make that mighty dollar…and that has not changed today. The only difference is that the peddlers, con men and pushers are corporations (which are legally considered a “person” per congressional legislation), lobbyists (hired by private corporations), pharmacists, doctors (paid by pharamecuticals), congressman (paid by lobbyists), media (paid by everyone) , Big Box-large chain stores and liquor stores (and other “convienent” stores) who make their profit off of you. Now they have chemists on their side that are federally regulated to Genetically Modify our food chain, in the dirt and with animals farmed for meat. So not only are we being addicted to processed food but now we are being forced to eat without our knowledge foods that have been altered before they even are grown or born. Think about it. Who really needs to be sentenced for multiple life times? The users or the dealers?

Ashleigh December 13, 2012 - 2:33 PM

The study where the rats drank more and more sugared water while eating less and less food resonates with me because that’s EXACTLY how I was at the height of my soda addiction. I was drinking 2L bottles per day…sometimes more. I wanted the soda more than food or I ate certain foods specifically to drink with soda. Like a perverse wine pairing or something.
Scary stuff. And now I need to work on my fast food addiction.

Brooklyn PeeWee January 13, 2013 - 11:02 AM

I just watched this film, “Hungry for Change” on Netflix. I’m still stunned. Here’s a clip from YouTube and they have a website by the same name, hungryforchange.tv


Comments are closed.