Big Food and Big Tobacco: Is History Repeating Itself?


There are some frightening parallels between the processed food industry and the tobacco industry, and we’re learning more and more about the connections between the two.

There was a period of time where smoking was promoted as a healthy habit, with tobacco companies utilizing physicians in their advertisements.

[Note the subtle(?) attention drawn to More Doctors — a la MD]


Taking Down Big Tobacco

It took heaps of evidence over many decades to overturn the ingrained habits and beliefs about the health hazards of smoking.   The tobacco manufacturers faced hundreds of lawsuits starting in the mid-1950’s, but were successful against all of them.  Litigation efforts escalated into a national legislative settlement in 1998 to recover billions of dollars in health care costs and placing numerous restrictions on advertising.  In 2006, the American Cancer Society won a major court case against tobacco manufacturers after they were found guilty of lying to the American public about the health hazards of smoking.

We’re in a similar position with processed food, with mounting evidence showing the harms of ultra processed foods.  It’s just food, you say, that’s a whole lot different than cigarettes.  Is it, though?

Disturbing Similarities

Both industries (Big Food and Big Tobacco) share a few key similarities:

  • Both are dominated by a few major companies
  • Both target young children with marketing to create life-long customers
  • Both focus on creating addictive habits
  • Both blame the consumer for the harm caused by their products

The classic Kraft macaroni and cheese may seem like an innocent meal, until you realize that the tobacco giant Philip Morris owned Kraft Foods and General Foods – merged together to become what was then the largest food company in the world.

Engineering the Addictive Nature of Food

After regulations were put into place on tobacco products and decreased their sales, the tobacco companies invested heavily in the food industry and deployed their tactics to make food irresistible.  As experts in creating addictive tobacco products, they used the same strategies to create addictive food products.  In place of nicotine, the addictive snare in processed foods is high-fructose corn syrup.

A recent study examined the food brands owned by tobacco companies related to the hyperpalatable nature of such foods – combinations of ingredients (fat, sugar, sodium, and carbohydrates) that create an artificially rewarding eating experience.  Such combinations of nutrients do not occur in nature, and they are associated with overconsumption of food.

These combinations of ingredients are expertly engineered to hit the “bliss point” – that sensory profile where you like food the most.

Foods that were developed by tobacco companies were 29% more likely to be fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable and 80% more likely to be carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable, compared to foods not produced by tobacco companies.

Time to Take Down Big Food

Big Food is working from the same playbook as Big Tobacco, utilizing the same deceptive tactics to create life-long customers of ultra-processed food.  These are powerful companies with significant market reach and brilliant marketing strategies.  When it comes to food, the stakes are just as high as, if not more than, tobacco due to the perceived innocence of food products relative to cigarettes, as well as being considered a “necessary” item.  We must avoid normalizing the consumption of these foods that are slowly destroying our health.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *