Ultra Processed Food Is Not As Addictive As Cocaine

Why recent headlines about ultra-processed foods are wrong

Gideon M-K; Health Nerd


Pictured: Delicious. Probably not addictive in a meaningful sense. Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Ultra-processed food is the latest in a long line of ways humans have thought up of trying to categorize things into easy groups of “healthy” vs “unhealthy’“. The idea is that foods which are produced in factories and come pre-packaged are generally unnatural and bad for your health, while things that haven’t been over processed are mostly fine to eat. There are many easy comparisons that make this intuitively seem right — a bag of corn chips vs a carrot, for example.

If you’ve been reading the news recently, this distinction has seemed more important than ever. Scientists have apparently shown that not only are ultra-processed foods bad for you, they are also as addictive as controlled drugs like heroine and cocaine. Specifically, the claim is that more than 1 in 10 (12%-14%) of people are currently addicted to these foods. For those of us who enjoy the occasional bag of frozen fries, this sounds like terrifying news.

Fortunately, the actual science isn’t nearly as scary as you might’ve heard. While ultra-processed foods are potentially not great to eat in large amounts, they certainly aren’t comparable to snorting a large pile of powder like you’re the lead in Scar Face.

Pictured: Worse for you than a hamburger and fries. Photo by Colin Davis on Unsplash

The Science

The first thing to note about the most recent headlines is that they genuinely aren’t based on any specific evidence. The story here contains essentially no data showing that ultra-processed food is addictive in any real sense, and certainly nothing proving that 14% of people are addicted to these foods.

The main paper that has caused all of this ruckus is an analysis piece published in the British Medical Journal in October 2023. For those who don’t work in scientific publishing, an analysis piece isn’t actually analysis — it’s essentially an op-ed but more sciency.

Now, that’s not to say that the opinions of senior professors aren’t interesting or important. Analysis papers can be very useful to understand an issue. This one was…