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Tobacco companies have manipulated people's health with tobacco products, causing immeasurable harm and leading to countless preventable diseases. But here's something you might find shocking: these companies have played a similar game with our food.

That's right, the masters of addiction who hooked generations on cigarettes applied similar strategies to make the food we eat every day more addictive, manipulating the contents of our plates much like they did our lungs. The influence of these tobacco giants on our food supply is yet another layer of their impact on public health, one that's perhaps less known but equally concerning.

Big Tobacco in Charge of Our Food?

In the 1980s, big tobacco companies made a bold move. They bought critical players in the food business like Kraft, General Foods, and Nabisco. This wasn't just a small change; it gave them a massive influence over what Americans eat. Thanks to them, famous and tasty products like Oreo cookies, Kraft Mac & Cheese, and Lunchables became staples in our diet.

A new study on addiction has opened our eyes to the somewhat alarming influence big tobacco companies have had on our food industry. It seems like the giants of tobacco, Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, have played an enormous role in shaping our food choices, using their influence to bring super tasty or "ultra-processed and addictive" foods into our kitchens.

So, what are these "ultra-processed and addictive" foods we are talking about? Well, think of foods loaded with sugar, fat, and salt, which are almost impossible to resist. And guess what? When these tobacco giants controlled significant food brands, they introduced these foods.

When these tobacco companies bought out the three big food corporations – Kraft, General Foods, and Nabisco -- this meant they had a massive say in what kinds of foods filled our grocery store shelves. Interestingly and a bit unsettling, the foods these tobacco-driven companies sold were much more likely to have loads of fat, sugar, salt, and additives. This made them super tasty and precisely the foods we crave.

The invasion of these too-good-to-resist foods has had a real impact on our health. The rise in obesity and diseases related to our diet seemed to skyrocket between 1988 and 2001. That's precisely when Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds had their hands in the food industry. This is not just a piece of history, as the effects are still felt today. Many of us still have these foods as staples in our diet.

The researchers, led by Tera Fazzino from the University of Kansas, dug deep, analyzing tons of internal documents from these tobacco companies. The findings were quite a revelation. They found out how these companies fine-tuned their products to make them as addictive as possible. Comparing best-selling foods from those tobacco-owned brands to similar products from other companies, the foods from the tobacco companies were 80% more likely to be irresistible.

Engineering Foods for 'Bliss'

Ashley Gearhardt, a professor at the University of Michigan, threw more light on this. These irresistible foods, she says, are engineered to hit our "bliss point," making them pretty addictive. They are not the natural foods our bodies need but are fast-tracked into our bloodstreams to hit the pleasure centers in our brains, just like other addictive substances.

Unsurprisingly, the tobacco companies used their knowledge of flavors, colors, and additives they developed for cigarettes to make a mark in the food industry. A good example is how Hawaiian Punch was turned from an adult cocktail mixer to a kiddie beverage using studies that targeted children. That's not all. They deeply explored other food categories and developed hit products like Teddy Grahams.

Marketing Strategies

And, of course, marketing played a significant role. Philip Morris, for example, applied the tactic of offering a variety of flavors and options, introducing products like Lunchables, which became a hit due to its variety and convenience as a meal option for kids despite being packed with ultra-processed stuff.

In simpler terms, it's like offering a myriad of choices, all colorful and convenient, to ensure everyone finds something they like, all while overlooking the actual value of what's inside. These cunning strategies make us ponder the intentions behind the variety in our food aisles and its actual impact on our well-being.

We must understand where these ultra-processed and addictive foods originated and who brought them into our food supply. With diet-related diseases on the rise, we need to know who's responsible for introducing these foods. Though the tobacco companies may have left the food industry, their strategies to create highly appealing and addictive products, especially for kids, still exist today. So, being aware and scrutinizing what we eat is more crucial than ever in today's food environment.

Impact on Public Health

The tobacco industry has played an essential yet damaging role in shaping our health through cigarettes and the foods many consume daily. The issues that arose years ago haven't just vanished; they continue to be a part of our daily lives, silently shaping our health narratives. The footprint of these ultra-tasty foods is engrained deeply in our eating habits, posing ongoing challenges to public health. These ultra-processed foods have triggered multiple chronic diseases in the U.S. and worldwide. 

Even though tobacco companies have exited the food industry, their impact lingers. According to Fazzino's study, the gap between foods previously owned by tobacco companies and other brands has primarily disappeared by 2018. This doesn't mean foods have become healthier; it suggests that other companies have adopted similar formulations to make their products as irresistible as those once sold by tobacco companies.

The study elucidates the shocking influence tobacco companies have had on the food industry, an impact that continues to shape the public's dietary habits and health outcomes today. While tobacco companies may no longer dominate the food industry, the playbook they created for making products that are highly palatable, addictive, and appealing—especially to children—still exists today. Therefore, heightened awareness and critical scrutiny are vital in navigating our food environment and choices.

About the Author

jenningsRobert Jennings is co-publisher of with his wife Marie T Russell. He attended the University of Florida, Southern Technical Institute, and the University of Central Florida with studies in real estate, urban development, finance, architectural engineering, and elementary education. He was a member of the US Marine Corps and The US Army having commanded a field artillery battery in Germany. He worked in real estate finance, construction and development for 25 years before starting in 1996.

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