Highly-processed foods should be reclassified as drugs because they are as addictive and harmful as cigarettes, scientists argue.
Researchers claim items like donuts, sugary cereals and pizza meet the meet official criteria that established cigarettes as a drug in the 1990s.
These include causing compulsive use and mood altering affects on the brain, and having properties or ingredients that reinforce addiction or trigger cravings.
Ultra processed foods – which also include things like soda, chips, pastries and candies – contain high amounts of unnatural flavorings, preservatives and sweeteners.
These properties give them their delicious flavor — but also make them high in calories, fat, sugar or salt, which raise the risk of obesity and other chronic illnesses.
Researchers led by Dr Ashley Gearhardt, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, told DailyMail.com these foods are more like a drug because of how distant they are in taste and texture from natural foods.
‘They are industrial produced substances designed to deliver sugar and fat,’ Dr Alexandra DiFeliceantoni, a health behaviors research professor at Virginia Tech University, said.
‘They are not foods anymore. These are these products that have been really well designed to deliver addictive substances.’
The researchers want the marketing of these foods to children to be restricted, the same way nicotine advertising cannot be directed at kids. But they have stopped short of calling for an outright age ban.
America’s obesity crisis has largely been tied to the prevalence of ultra-processed foods. The foods are believed to make up around 50 per cent of the American diet.
As a result, around 70 per cent of Americans are obese according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with 40 per cent classed as obese.
Dr Gearhardt warned that even people who of a healthy weight are still at risk of developing cancer and other issues down the line from eating junk food.
The foods have been linked to a jump in diseases like colorectal and kidney cancer, and Alzheimer’s in the US, among other diseases.
Constantly spiking blood-sugar, through eating sugary foods, can also lead to diabetes.
A shocking study published in September that found rates of early onset breast, colon and pancreatic cancer were rising globally pointed also to these foods as a culprit.
Brazilian researchers published a study earlier this week suggesting that one-in-five premature deaths in the South American nation were tied to processed foods.
Now, experts are calling for them to be regulated in a similar way as nicotine.
In 1988, Dr Charles Everett Koop, who served as US surgeon general for President Ronald Reagan, published a 600 page report discussing nicotine addiction.
At the time, more than half of US adults smoked cigarettes but the long term impacts of their use were relatively unknown.
Dr Koop used three key metrics, compulsive use, mood alteration and reinforcement to determine that nicotine was an addictive substance.
Last year, scientists determined that the cravings for a cigarette many chronic users feel are a fourth pillar of addiction as well.
Dr Gearhardt and Dr DiFeliceantoni applied the standards used to determine nicotine was an addictive substance to highly-processed food as well.
The first was compulsive use, which they described as a person wanting to eat the foods even when they were aware how unhealthy they are.
‘People want to cut down, people go on diets and a vast majority of people fail,’ Dr Gearhardt told DailyMail.com.
‘They find it difficult to do so even when they know its going to kill them.’
She blamed the fat and sugar contents of the foods for triggering an addictive response in the brain.
While more research into junk food is needed to determine how exactly they impact the brain, she believes the speed at which the body processes them can play a role.
These quick hits are similar to how nicotine, alcohol and cocaine work throughout the body, the researchers say.
The high sugar and fat contents of these foods also impact a person’s dopamine receptors in the brain.
‘It affects your well being or your mood in a way that is actionable to the brain,’ Dr DiFeliceantoni, explained.
The pair of researchers describe it a as a ‘psychoactive’ effect that a person will need to consume more highly processed snacks to reach again – just like that of other drugs.
Processed foods also have a ‘reinforcement’ effect, where a person may seek out the foods even when they do not need to.
Dr Gearhardt uses the example of a person with healthy food in their fridge choosing to go out and purchase chocolate ice cream because of their addiction.
People may also crave their favorite junk food, searching to the affect the heavy fats and sugars have on the brain – meeting the fourth, later added, criteria.
Eating these foods can cause severe negative health effects over time.