According to an analysis of 281 studies from 36 countries published in BMJ, approximately 1 in 7 adults and 1 in 8 children may be addicted to ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

The UPFs include ice cream, fizzy drinks, and ready meals.

The global consumption of UPFs constitutes over half of the average diet in countries like the UK and the US. Researchers suggest that the way some individuals consume these foods could meet the criteria for a diagnosis of substance use disorder, with behaviour patterns such as intense cravings, withdrawal symptoms, reduced control over consumption, and persistent use despite negative consequences.

The negative consequences linked to UPF addiction include obesity, binge eating disorder, worsened physical and mental health, and a lower quality of life. Ultra-processed food addiction is now a significant concern, affecting 14% of adults and 12% of children, according to the BMJ study.

Experts note that categorising certain high-carb and high-fat foods as “addictive” could lead to beneficial changes in social, clinical, and political policies. The authors believe that recognising certain UPFs as addictive could stimulate more research in this area.

Co-author Alexandra DiFeliceantonio point out the lack of knowledge regarding these foods’ prevalence and effects, especially given that they constitute 58% of calories consumed in the United States.

The research team, representing the US, Brazil, and Spain, highlighted that refined carbohydrates and fats found in UPFs can trigger dopamine release in the brain’s striatum, similar to addictive substances like nicotine and alcohol. Foods high in refined carbohydrates or added fats are strong candidates for being considered addictive substances based on both behavioural and biological parallels.

The UPF’s rapid delivery of carbohydrates and fats to the gut could contribute to the potential for addiction, according to the authors. Food additives used to enhance taste and mouthfeel in UPFs might also enhance their addictiveness.

However, the researchers emphasised that not all foods possess addictive potential. It is the UPFs high in refined carbohydrates and added fats that are consumed in addictive patterns and lead to adverse health effects. These UPFs are described as highly rewarding, appealing, and compulsively consumed, potentially displaying addictive qualities.

Behaviour related to ultra-processed food consumption may meet the criteria for diagnosing substance use disorder in certain individuals.