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The Villages
Saturday, April 13, 2024

Tobacco company strategies used on processed foods

Dr. Gabe Mirkin

The greatest increase in “junk foods” (tasty processed foods with low nutritional value) in our food supply occurred when tobacco companies such as Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds owned the world’s largest food companies (Public Health Nutr, 2023 Jan; 26(1): 182–189). They used some of the same chemicals and marketing techniques to sell food that they used to sell cigarettes (Am J Public Health, 2020 Mar;110(3):329-336). The tobacco companies no longer own these food companies, but the food industry is still marketing many of the same highly addictive processed foods.

Researchers identified 105 foods that were among the best-selling products for brands owned by either Philip Morris or R.J. Reynolds between 1988 and 2001 (Addiction, September 8, 2023). For example, R.J. Reynolds owned Nabisco which sold Oreo cookies, Teddy Grahams, Ritz crackers and SnackWell fat-free cookies, while Philip Morris owned the world’s largest food company, Kraft-General Foods, which sold Kraft Mac & Cheese, Jello-O, Kool-Aid and Oscar Mayer hot dogs. The researchers compared the nutritional makeup of these foods to 587 similar products sold by competing brands that were not owned by tobacco companies and found that “tobacco-owned foods were 80 percent more likely to contain potent combinations of refined carbs and sodium (salt) that made them hyper-palatable. Tobacco-owned brands were also 29 percent more likely to contain similarly potent combinations of fat and sodium” (Washington Post, September 19, 2023).

Obesity is Still Increasing
In the last 40 years, ultra-processed foods have contributed to the increase in obesity, with 70 percent of North American adults being overweight and 30 percent so morbidly obese that they are at significantly increased risk for heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. These studies estimate that 14 percent of adults and 12 percent of children are so addicted to food that they keep on eating long after they have met their nutritional needs (Eur Eat Disord Rev, 2022; 30: 85–95; Obes Rev, 2021; 22:e13183). They keep on eating even though they are increasing their chances for a lower quality of life (Addiction, 2021;116: 2870–9) and an early death (Annu Rev Nutr, 2021;41:387–410).

Definition of Ultra-Processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods contain “added salt, sugar, oils, fats, flavorings, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods, or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product” (BMJ Open, March 9, 2016;6(3)). Ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, most dry breakfast cereals, frozen pizzas, frozen meals and entrees, most supermarket breads, cakes, pies, cookies, snack bars including sports nutrition bars, diet bars and “energy” bars, candy, crackers, salty snack foods such as potato chips, corn chips and pretzels, processed meats including those made from poultry or seafood, instant soups and noodle bowls, bottled juices, salad dressings and many others.

Tobacco Companies and Sugared Drinks
In the 1960s, R.J. Reynolds did research to develop sugared drinks for children. Their research manager wrote that many of the flavors the company had developed for cigarettes “could be useful in food, beverage and other products leading to large financial returns.” Reynolds bought the company that made Hawaiian Punch, which came in two flavors. The company increased Hawaiian Punch to 16 flavors and aimed some drinks for children. Sugared drinks are particularly harmful since when you take in liquid sugar, you get a higher rise in blood sugar than when you take in the same amount of sugar in a solid food. Sugared drinks increase risk for obesity, heart attacks, diabetes, strokes and certain cancers (Circulation, 2010 Mar 23; 121(11): 1356–1364).

My Recommendations
Many ultra-processed foods contain chemicals that are similar to the ones developed by tobacco companies many years ago to make you smoke more cigarettes and cigars. They also have extra sugar, salt and refined carbohydrates that make the foods taste so good that you are likely to keep on eating long after you have met your needs for calories and nutrients.

I recommend following a plant-based diet that is low in ultra-processed foods. Include a wide variety of different vegetables, nuts, seeds, avocados, berries, and other fruits, along with lots of whole grains and legumes, and a small amount of healthful oils such as olive oil. I think that it is also healthful to eat fish as long as you avoid very large fish that live long enough to take in a lot of heavy metals such as mercury. If you don’t eat any animal products, take a B12 supplement since it is not found in plants.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more www.drmirkin.com

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