For decades, tobacco companies hooked people on cigarettes by making their products more addictive. Now, a new study suggests that tobacco companies may have used a similar strategy to hook people on processed foods.
In the 1980s, tobacco giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds acquired the major food companies Kraft, General Foods and Nabisco, allowing tobacco firms to dominate America's food supply and reap billions in sales from popular brands such as Oreo cookies, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Lunchables.
By the 2000s, the tobacco giants spun off their food companies and largely exited the food industry - but not before leaving a lasting legacy on the foods that we eat.
The new research, published in the journal Addiction, focuses on the rise of "hyper-palatable" foods, which contain potent combinations of fat, sodium, sugar and other additives that can drive people to crave and overeat them. The Addiction study found that in the decades when the tobacco giants owned the world's leading food companies, the foods that they sold were far more likely to be hyper-palatable than similar foods not owned by tobacco companies.
In the past 30 years, hyper-palatable foods have spread rapidly into the food supply, coinciding with a surge in obesity and diet-related diseases. In America, the steepest increase in the prevalence of hyper-palatable foods occurred between 1988 and 2001 - the era when Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds owned the world's leading food companies.
Even though the tobacco companies no longer own these food brands, researchers say the findings matter because many of the ultra-processed foods that we eat today were engineered by an industry that wrote the playbook on products that are highly-palatable, addictive and appealing to children.
"We found that tobacco companies selectively disseminated hyper-palatable foods into the food supply," said Tera Fazzino, the lead author of the new study and an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Kansas. "It's important for people to understand where these foods came from and who was responsible for putting them into our food system in a way that saturates the environment."
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For their study, Fazzino and her colleagues pored over documents contained in the University of California at San Francisco's Industry Documents Library, which contains millions of internal tobacco industry documents that shed light on how the companies designed their products to be addictive and the strategies they used to market them.
Fazzino and her colleagues identified 105 foods that were among the best-selling products for brands owned by either Philip Morris or R.J. Reynolds between 1988 and 2001. At the time, R.J. Reynolds owned Nabisco, whose popular brands included Oreo cookies, Teddy Grahams, Ritz crackers and SnackWell's fat-free Devils Food cookies.
Philip Morris once owned the world's largest food company, Kraft-General Foods, which sold popular brands like Kraft Mac & Cheese, Jello-O, Kool-Aid and Oscar Mayer hot dogs.
The researchers compared the nutritional makeup of these foods to 587 similar products sold by competing brands that were not owned by tobacco companies.
They found that tobacco-owned foods were 80 percent more likely to contain potent combinations of carbs and sodium that made them hyper-palatable. Tobacco-owned brands were also 29 percent more likely to contain similarly potent combinations of fat and sodium.
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The findings suggest that tobacco companies engineered processed foods to hit what is known as our "bliss" point and elicit cravings, said Ashley Gearhardt, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies food addiction.
She said that hyper-palatable foods have a lot in common with addictive substances. They contain ingredients from naturally occurring plants and foods that have been purified, concentrated and transformed into products that are quickly absorbed into our bloodstreams, which amplifies their ability to light up reward centers in our brains.
"Every addictive substance is something that we take from nature and we alter it, process it and refine it in a way that makes it more rewarding - and that is very clearly what happened with these hyper-palatable food substances," said Gearhardt, who was not involved in the new study. "We treat these foods like they come from nature. Instead, they're foods that come from Big Tobacco."
Philip Morris, which changed its name to Altria, declined to comment. R.J. Reynolds, Kraft and Mondelez, which owns Nabisco, did not respond to requests for comment.
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Tobacco companies got into the food business 60 years ago to diversify their product portfolios. These firms had extensive libraries of colors, flavors and additives that they developed for cigarettes, and executives realized they could use these ingredients to make a variety of processed foods.
In the 1960s, R.J. Reynolds launched a project to develop sugary drinks, which involved market research on children. In an internal memo that year, the company's manager of biochemical research wrote to an RJR executive that the firm was not "merely" a tobacco company: "In a broader and much less restricting sense," he wrote, "R.J. Reynolds is in the flavor business."
The research manager noted that many of the flavors the company had developed for cigarettes "would be useful in food, beverage and other products," leading to "large financial returns."
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The following year, RJR bought the maker of Hawaiian Punch, which at the time was a cocktail mixer that was available in only two flavors. After conducting dozens of market research studies in children and housewives, RJR expanded Hawaiian Punch to at least 16 flavors, including many preferred by kids. The company was among the first to introduce a nationally distributed "juice box," which became an instant hit.
"They took something that was an adult cocktail mixer and a year later they had turned it into a children's beverage," said Laura Schmidt, a professor of health policy at the UCSF School of Medicine who has published studies examining the tobacco industry's involvement in food companies.
RJR used a cartoon mascot, Punchy, to market Hawaiian Punch to children. For decades, Punchy appeared in TV commercials, Sunday comics, schoolbook covers, toys and magazines, helping to generate tens of millions of dollars in sales and becoming what RJR called "The best salesman the beverage has ever had."
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Its success with Hawaiian Punch led RJR to expand into other foods, including puddings and maple syrup. Then in 1985 the tobacco giant acquired Nabisco, which catapulted the company into a dominant player in the food industry. The conglomerate went on to launch many successful new processed foods, including Teddy Grahams, a bite-sized children's snack that soon became the third best-selling cookie behind only Chips Ahoy and Oreo, both also produced by Nabisco.
RJR Nabisco marketed Teddy Grahams as "a delicious yet wholesome snack because they're made with graham flour and other wholesome ingredients." Yet critics pointed out that the product was predominantly made from white flour and contained just two grams of graham flour in a one-ounce serving. The snack was so popular that Nabisco created an adult version of it, Honey Maid Honeycomb Graham Snacks. "Nabisco reasoned that the sweet taste and relatively healthful image could also hook adults," according to a 1990 New York Times article about the launch of the new snack.
A couple years later, as the low-fat craze was underway, Nabisco introduced its wildly popular SnackWell's cookies, which sold out in stores across the country, reaching sales of almost a half-billion dollars in only three years. SnackWell's low-fat and fat-free cookies appealed to weight-conscious consumers. But the snacks contained plenty of sugar and calories, and critics pointed out that people would often binge on them because they believed they weren't fattening - a phenomenon known as the SnackWell effect.
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Nabisco was bought in 2000 by Philip Morris, which was already a dominant player in the food industry thanks to its acquisitions of Kraft and General Foods in the 1980s. Schmidt at UCSF said that when Philip Morris bought General Foods in 1985, it installed tobacco executives at the food company and launched initiatives to market sugary drinks and processed foods to children and minorities.
To broaden the reach of its cigarettes, Philip Morris used a marketing strategy called "line extensions": Marlboro cigarettes were marketed to men, Virginia Slims targeted women and menthol cigarettes were heavily advertised to Black consumers.
The company applied the same tactic to processed foods, Schmidt said. It added new flavors and formulas to many of its existing products, giving consumers an endless variety of hyper-palatable foods to buy.
Between 1986 and 2004, Philip Morris developed a dozen new products of liquid and frozen Kool-Aid and introduced around 36 child-tested flavors, including Kickin' Kiwi Lime and Great Bluedini, which had its own cartoon mascot.
One of its best-selling products, Lunchables, was introduced in 1988 by Oscar Mayer. Designed to look like a TV dinner and marketed to busy moms and their children, the prepackaged meal of bologna, crackers and processed cheese contained so much sodium and saturated fat that some doctors called it a "blood pressure bomb." One Philip Morris executive joked about references that the healthiest item in a package of Lunchables was the napkin.
According to "Salt Sugar Fat," the best-selling book by investigative journalist Michael Moss, Lunchables had sales of $218 million in its first 12 months on the market. This prompted Oscar Mayer to introduce line extensions such as Lunchables with Snickers bars, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Kool-Aid and Capri Sun.
By the early 2000s, Philip Morris was mired in tobacco lawsuits. Moss said the company's leadership warned its food-side executives that they could face a similar risk of litigation over the health effects of processed foods. One senior Kraft executive named Michael Mudd, Moss said, reviewed the company's records and products and told a Philip Morris lawyer he was worried that some of its cookies and processed foods could drive people to eat compulsively.
The tobacco companies are no longer in the food business - but the impact they had on the food supply was substantial.
Fazzino's new study found that by 2018, the differences in previously tobacco-owned foods and other foods had mostly disappeared. It's not that foods got healthier, Fazzino said, but that other companies saw what worked and many products likely were reformulated to make them just as hyper-palatable as those sold by their competitors.