Ice Cream / Chips as Addictive as Hard Drugs, New Research Shows

Recent studies have identified ultra-processed foods (UPFs) as being as addictive as cocaine or heroin, with findings suggesting that around 14% of adults globally are addicted.

Quick Facts

  • Research Source: A comprehensive analysis of 281 studies from 36 countries.
  • Lead Researcher: Prof. Ashley Gearhardt from the University of Michigan, who also developed the Yale Food Addiction Scale.
  • Main Concern: UPFs like sausages, ice creams, and sugary cereals have been associated with various health issues, including cognitive decline, cancer, and even premature death.

The rising concern over the addictive nature of UPFs stems from an analysis that evaluated the dependence people have on such foods. This research, which spanned 36 countries, has raised eyebrows in the scientific community, especially given that these foods have been previously linked to a slew of health problems. Their addictive nature is believed to arise from the combination of refined carbohydrates and fats, which, when present together, seem to amplify their effect on the brain’s reward systems. This, in turn, may enhance the addictive potential of these products, according to the findings published in The BMJ.

The exact reasons why these foods are so addictive are still a subject of investigation. While certain addictive substances like nicotine have a clear active component causing addiction, UPFs may owe their addictive qualities to a combination of ingredients. Interestingly, naturally sourced foods usually contain either high levels of carbohydrates or fats, but not both. UPFs, in contrast, tend to contain high levels of both. For instance, while an apple mainly provides calories from carbohydrates, a chocolate bar offers a significant calorie count from both carbs and fats.

One of the most concerning aspects of UPFs’ addictive nature is how they affect the brain. Consumption of these foods can lead to a surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. However, this is swiftly followed by a drop, leading to a cycle reminiscent of substance abuse, where the individual constantly craves the next fix. While some argue that additives in these foods might not be directly addictive, they could possibly reinforce the addictive effects of the high-caloric content.

For Further Reading Dopamine: Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger that transmits signals in the brain and other areas of the body. It plays several important roles in both the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Its most notable job is in the reward system. Dopamine release in the brain is linked to rewarding behaviors and pleasure. However, excessive or imbalanced levels of dopamine can have negative effects, leading to disorders like schizophrenia or certain types of risk-taking behavior. For more detailed information, refer to Wikipedia’s article on Dopamine.


What exactly are ultra-processed foods (UPFs)?
UPFs, or ultra-processed foods, are products that have undergone multiple processing stages and often contain additives, preservatives, and other chemical ingredients. Examples include ice cream, biscuits, sugary cereals, and soft drinks.

How does the addictive nature of UPFs compare to substances like cocaine or nicotine?
According to recent research, the addictive potential of UPFs might be on par with hard drugs due to their effect on the brain’s reward system, leading to behaviors similar to substance abuse.

Are all individuals equally susceptible to UPFs’ addictive properties?
No, not everyone is equally susceptible. Just as some people can consume alcohol without developing an addiction, some individuals can consume UPFs without getting addicted. The exact reasons for this variability remain a topic of research.

Citation: Kato, Brooke. “Ice cream and potato chips are just as addictive as cocaine or heroin: research.” Published Oct. 14, 2023.

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