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Big Tobacco’s Hyperpalatable Foods in America

A study has revealed that food brands owned by tobacco companies still dominating the American food landscape.

A disturbing chapter in American history, the tobacco industry’s expansion into the food sector has left an indelible mark on the nation’s dietary landscape. This legacy has significantly contributed to the prevalence of hyperpalatable foods – those engineered to be highly palatable, often through excessive amounts of salt, fat, and sugar – in the American diet.

The Tactics Employed by Big Tobacco in the Food Industry

Big Tobacco’s foray into the food industry was not merely a diversification strategy. Instead, it was a calculated move to exploit the addictive properties of hyperpalatable foods, mirroring the strategies they employed with cigarettes. These tactics included:

  • Acquiring and reformulating existing food brands
    Big Tobacco companies acquired established food brands and reformulated their products to incorporate hyperpalatable ingredients.
  • Developing new hyperpalatable food products
    Big Tobacco companies also developed and marketed entirely new products, such as snack foods and sugary drinks, that were engineered for maximum indulgence.
  • Aggressive marketing campaigns
    Big Tobacco companies employed aggressive marketing campaigns to promote their food products, targeting children and vulnerable populations.

The Enduring Impact of Big Tobacco’s Influence

While Big Tobacco has largely divested from the food industry, their legacy of hyperpalatable foods persists. These foods continue to dominate the American food landscape, contributing to a significant rise in obesity, heart disease, and other chronic health conditions.

It is widely recognized that many foods marketed in the United States are addictive, particularly those that are salty, sweet, and high in fat. This type of food is often referred to as “junk food” and makes up a significant portion of the American diet.

Hyperpalatable foods are those that are specifically designed to be highly appealing and irresistible, often containing combinations of fats, sugars, sodium, and carbohydrates. These foods can be extremely addictive and difficult to stop eating once consumed.

The study, led by Tera Fazzino, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and associate director of the Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment, found that tobacco-owned food companies were 29% more likely to produce fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods and 80% more likely to produce carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods compared to non-tobacco-owned food companies.

This finding is particularly concerning given the widespread prevalence of hyperpalatable foods in the American diet. Fazzino’s previous research has shown that 68% of the American food supply can be classified as hyperpalatable.

The researchers used a combination of data sources, including internal tobacco industry documents and nutrition data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to conduct their analysis. While they cannot definitively determine the intent of tobacco companies in promoting hyperpalatable foods, their findings raise serious questions about the possible motivations behind these actions.

This study highlights the potential impact of corporate influence on our food choices and the importance of making informed decisions about what we consume. It is crucial to be aware of the hidden forces that may be influencing our dietary habits and make conscious choices to prioritize healthier options.

Hyperpalatable foods have become mainstays

The research team, which included KU doctoral students Daiil Jun and Kayla Bjorlie, along with Lynn Chollet Hinton, assistant professor of biostatistics and data science at KU Medical Center, was inspired by earlier work by Laura Schmidt at the University of California-San Francisco.

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

The KU researchers found that 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.

This suggests that the shadow of Big Tobacco has remained in the American food system, and that these foods have become mainstays of the American diet.

Fazzino said that it’s difficult to track down food that’s not hyperpalatable. 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, are not just hard to find, they’re also more expensive.

Challenging food choices

The current food landscape makes it challenging to make healthy choices, with many readily available foods engineered to induce overeating. These hyperpalatable foods often contain combinations of ingredients that create unique effects beyond the sum of their individual parts. These unnatural combinations can excessively activate the brain’s reward system and disrupt natural fullness signals, making it difficult to resist overconsumption.

As a result, consuming hyperpalatable foods increases the risk of obesity and associated health complications, even among individuals who are not actively trying to overeat. These foods can essentially trick the body into consuming more than is necessary, challenging the notion that it is solely a matter of individual willpower and dietary choices.

To address this issue, Fazzino suggests utilizing metrics of hyperpalatability to regulate the formulation of such foods. By assessing the combination and concentration of ingredients that contribute to hyperpalatability, we can better understand the impact of food design on consumer behavior and health outcomes.


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.

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