LAWRENCE — Tobacco companies risked the nation’s health by investing in food companies and deploying cigarette advertising tactics during the 1990s to deepen consumer appetite for exceptionally palatable foods packed with addictive sugar, sodium and fat, University of Kansas researchers said in a new study.
Building on previous research linking tobacco interests to marketing of sugary drinks, a group of KU scholars poured through federal data and industry documents to examine food brands owned by U.S. tobacco corporations from 1988 to 2001. They affirmed tobacco-owned foods were 80% more likely to be classified as heavy with carbohydrates and sodium, and 29% more likely to be classified as fat-and-sodium rich, than foods that weren’t tobacco-owned during that period.
The influence of tobacco companies on consumer choice has endured long after they edged away from food investments, researchers said.
“What we can say is there’s evidence to indicate tobacco companies were consistently involved with owning and developing hyperpalatable foods during the time that they were leading our food system,” said Tera Fazzino, KU assistant professor of psychology. “Their involvement was selective in nature and different from the companies that didn’t have a parent tobacco-company ownership.”
Fazzino, associate director of the Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment at KU’s Life Span Institute, said the study published in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction showed hyperpalatable foods were engineered to induce sustained eating by triggering the brain’s reward system and disrupting the mind’s signal of fullness. The result left consumers more prone to obesity and other health challenges.
“These foods have combinations of ingredients that create effects you don’t get when you eat those ingredients separately,” Fazzino said. “These combinations don’t really exist in nature, so our bodies aren’t ready to handle them.”
Fazzino and KU doctoral students Daiil Jun and Kayla Bjorlie along with Lynn Chollet Hinton, assistant professor of biostatistics and data science at KU Medical Center, turned to data from an archive of internal tobacco industry documents to determine ownership of food companies. They reviewed nutrition information at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to estimate the extent foods were formulated to be hyperpalatable.
There was a period in the early 2000s that Philip Morris manufactured Kraft Macaroni and Kool-Aid as well as Virginia Slims and Marlboro. RJR Nabisco simultaneously held companies producing Chips Ahoy! cookies and Camel cigarettes.
“We used multiple sources of data to examine the question, ‘In what ways were U.S. tobacco companies involved in the promotion and spread of hyperpalatable food into our food system?’” Fazzino said. “Hyperpalatable foods can be irresistible and difficult to stop eating. They have combinations of palatability-related nutrients, specifically fat, sugar, sodium or other carbohydrates that occur in combinations together.”
“These combinations of nutrients provide a really enhanced eating experience and make them difficult to stop eating,” she said. “These effects are different than if you just had something high in fat but had no sugar, salt or other type of refined carbohydrate.”
KU researchers expanded on work by University of California-San Francisco researcher Laura Schmidt and her colleagues, who established in 2019 that R.J. Reynolds was directly involved in targeting sugar sweetened beverages at children. In addition, Schmidt reported Philip Morris applied tobacco marketing strategies to lure ethnic and racial minority communities to their food products.
“Executives in the two largest U.S.-based tobacco companies had developed colors and flavors as additives for cigarettes and used them to build major children’s beverage product lines, including Hawaiian Punch, Kool-Aid, Tang and Capri Sun,” Schmidt said at that time.
The KU study drew upon the cache of documents from the tobacco industry available through the UCSF Industry Documents Library.
Other work by Fazzino led to the conclusion approximately two-thirds of the U.S. food supply could be categorized as hyperpalatable despite tobacco companies moving to divest of U.S. food holdings during the 2000s.
“It’s actually a bit difficult to track down food that’s not hyperpalatable,” Fazzino said. “In our day-to-day lives, the foods we’re surrounded by and can easily grab are mostly the hyperpalatable ones. And foods that are not hyperpalatable, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, they’re not just hard to find, they’re also more expensive.”