Big Tobacco’s Legacy: Pushing Hyperpalatable Foods in America

Summary: Food brands owned by tobacco companies have actively disseminated hyperpalatable foods, loaded with salts, fats, and sugars, to American consumers. Researchers say these foods provide an enhanced eating experience that’s hard to resist.

From 1988-2001, tobacco-owned foods were significantly more likely to be labeled as hyperpalatable compared to non-tobacco-owned foods. While Big Tobacco divested from the U.S. food system by the mid-2000s, the legacy of hyperpalatable foods persists in the modern American diet.

Key Facts:

  1. Tobacco-owned foods between 1988 and 2001 were up to 80% more likely to be hyperpalatable compared to those not owned by tobacco companies.
  2. Despite tobacco companies divesting from the U.S. food system by the mid-2000s, over 57% of fat-and-sodium and 17% of carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods were still prevalent in 2018.
  3. Hyperpalatable foods excessively stimulate our brain’s reward system, disrupting fullness signals, leading to overconsumption and related health issues.

Source: University of Kansas

Many of us know all too well the addictive nature of many foods marketed in the United States — most call it “junk food.” In fact, this kind of salty, sweet and high-fat fare makes up the lion’s share of what’s marketed to Americans.

Researchers employ a more scholarly term for food items featuring purposely tempting combinations of salts, fats and sugars: They’re “hyperpalatable.”

Now, an investigator at the University of Kansas has conducted research showing food brands owned by tobacco companies — which invested heavily into the U.S. food industry in the 1980s — appear to have “selectively disseminated hyperpalatable foods” to American consumers.

This shows a person holding fries.
Fazzino said using metrics of hyperpalatability could be one way to regulate formulations of food that are engineered to induce sustained eating. Credit: Neuroscience News

The study was published today in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction.

“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?’” said lead author Tera Fazzino, assistant professor of psychology at KU and associate director of the Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment at the KU Life Span Institute.

“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.”

Fazzino’s previous work has shown today that 68% of the American food supply is hyperpalatable.

“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.”

Fazzino and her co-authors found between 1988 and 2001, tobacco-owned foods were 29% more likely to be classified as fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable and 80% more likely to be classified as carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable than foods that were not tobacco-owned. 

The KU researchers used data from a public repository of internal tobacco industry documents to determine ownership of food companies, then combed nutrition data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in longitudinal analyses to estimate how much foods were “formulated to be hyperpalatable, based on tobacco ownership.”

“The question about their intent —we can’t really say from this data,” Fazzino said. “But 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. Their involvement was selective in nature and different from the companies that didn’t have a parent tobacco-company ownership.”

Fazzino’s co-authors were KU doctoral students Daiil Jun and Kayla Bjorlie, along with Lynn Chollet Hinton, assistant professor of biostatistics and data science at KU Medical Center.

The KU researchers said they built their investigation inspired by earlier work by Laura Schmidt at the University of California-San Francisco.

“She and her team established that the same tobacco companies were involved in the development and heavy marketing of sugary drinks to kids — that was R.J. Reynolds — and that Philip Morris was involved in the direct transfer of tobacco marketing strategies targeting racial and ethnic minority communities in the U.S. to sell their food products,” Fazzino said.

While tobacco companies divested from the U.S. food system between the early to mid-2000s, perhaps the shadow of Big Tobacco has remained. The new KU study finds the availability of fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods (more than 57%) and carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods (more than 17%) was still high in 2018, regardless of prior tobacco ownership, showing these foods have become mainstays of the American diet.

“The majority of what’s out there in our food supply falls under the hyperpalatable category,” Fazzino said.

“It’s actually a bit difficult to track down food that’s not hyperpalatable. 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.

“We don’t really have many choices when it comes to picking between foods that are fresh and enjoyable to eat (e.g., a crisp apple) and foods that you just can’t stop eating.”

Fazzino said using metrics of hyperpalatability could be one way to regulate formulations of food that are engineered to induce sustained eating.

“These foods have combinations of ingredients that create effects you don’t get when you eat those ingredients separately,” the KU researcher said. “And guess what? These combinations don’t really exist in nature, so our bodies aren’t ready to handle them. They can excessively trigger our brain’s reward system and disrupt our fullness signals, which is why they’re difficult to resist.”

As a result, consumers of hyperpalatable foods are more prone to obesity and related health consequences, even when they don’t intend to overeat.

“These foods may be designed to make you eat more than you planned,” Fazzino said. “It’s not just about personal choice and watching what you eat – they can kind of trick your body into eating more than you actually want.”

About this addiction and diet research news

Author: Brendan Lynch
Source: University of Kansas
Contact: Brendan Lynch – University of Kansas
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
US tobacco companies selectively disseminated hyper-palatable foods into the US food system: Empirical evidence and current implications” by Tera Fazzino et al. Addiction


US tobacco companies selectively disseminated hyper-palatable foods into the US food system: Empirical evidence and current implications

Background and aims

US tobacco companies owned leading US food companies from 1980 to 2001. We measured whether hyper-palatable foods (HPF) were disproportionately developed in tobacco-owned food companies, resulting in substantial tobacco-related influence on the US food system.


The study involved a review of primary industry documents to identify food brands that were tobacco company-owned. Data sets from the US Department of Agriculture were integrated to facilitate longitudinal analyses estimating the degree to which foods were formulated to be hyper-palatable, based on tobacco ownership.

Setting and cases

United States Department of Agriculture data sets were used to identify HPF foods that were (n = 105) and were not (n = 587) owned by US tobacco companies from 1988 to 2001.


A standardized definition from Fazzino et al. (2019) was used to identify HPF. HPF items were identified overall and by HPF group: fat and sodium HPF, fat and sugar HPF and carbohydrates and sodium HPF.


Tobacco-owned foods were 29% more likely to be classified as fat and sodium HPF and 80% more likely to be classified as carbohydrate and sodium HPF than foods that were not tobacco-owned between 1988 and 2001 (P-values = 0.005–0.009). The availability of fat and sodium HPF (> 57%) and carbohydrate and sodium HPF (> 17%) was high in 2018 regardless of prior tobacco-ownership status, suggesting widespread saturation into the food system.


Tobacco companies appear to have selectively disseminated hyper-palatable foods into the US food system between 1988 and 2001.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.
  1. Didn’t it occur to anybody that smoking dulls your taste buds so they were probably countering that side effect?

  2. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, tobacco companies know all about addiction. It’s how they make money and the government is just as guilty. The greed in the US is the cause of the unhealthy foods and lifestyles that are promoted. The government doesn’t really care about the publics health, they just come up with band aid solutions to pacify the current trend or lobby. The US is so greedy, arrogant and corrupt there will never be any REAL changes. In Europe they do not use all the chemicals in food like we do. Food is fresh and chemical free. We trade one bad habit for another. Electric cars for gas. Yet the lithium for the batteries has to be mined and is toxic to dispose of. Same for nuclear energy, its not clean. Japan is dumping their nuclear plant water into the ocean, they say the particle per is “acceptable” and safe? Ok, but as they ad more and more over time, then what? That stuff doesn’t dissipate for decades. Chernobyl will never be lived in again. It’s a big science experiment now.

  3. Not a big surprise that the food industry and their mind-manipulating corporate marketing practice is culpable in helping create the overwhelming epidemic of obesity & health disaster in this country. We should expose the connection between these corporations ‘free-market’ power to manipulate the minds of the masses through their subversive advertising campaigns. What a sick motivation of misinformation & seductive coercion . All so they can be rich & in power. Very, very, sad.

  4. Excellent article, numerous times I’ve tried to make it make sense when seeking answers as to how the quality of the food they provide us is even legal, but now I know. As with everything in this crooked, corrupt world we find ourselves struggling to survive in there’s always a BIG behind those struggles tap dancing on our tombstones all the way to the bank.

  5. It’s a two edged sword. The tobacco/food companies get people hooked on this poison and they develop health problems. Then, sometime down the road, these same people have bad health conditions that require spending large amounts of money to treat! We are just “cash cows”!

  6. This is the biggest load of junk propaganda I have read. You can literally substitute any number of healthy foods or normal behavior and apply it to this insane rational. Anything any any behavior can and has become documented as harmful.

    Trying to “blame” tobacco companies for producing “addictive foods” as well as cigarettes is as far stretching and as ridiculous as it reads.

  7. Not suprising: smoking deadens taste and smell, so the tobacco companies had a ready-made customer base for their crapfood.

    1. I think your missing the point by presuming that they only targeted cigarette smokers with their hyper palatable food.

Comments are closed.