LAWRENCE (KSNT) – A group of academics from the University of Kansas have released their findings in a study focused on identifying why certain foods are so hard to resist.

Many Americans are familiar with the term “junk food,” but probably haven’t heard of another term referring to high combinations of salts fats and sugars: “hyperpalatable.” That’s the label KU Assistant Professor of Psychology Tera Fazzino is using to help explain why some foods snare our taste buds more than others.

Diving into hyperpalatable foods

In a study released this past week, Fazzino and her fellow researches say hyperpalatable foods make up a good deal of the available foods marketed to people in the U.S. Fazzino claims these foods have ties to the tobacco industry, stating that these companies invested heavily into the U.S. food industry during the 1980s with the objective of spreading hyperpalatable foods to consumers.

“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,’” Fazzino said. “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.”

The report, published in the journal “Addiction,” shows that 68% of the American food supply is made up of hyperpalatable foods. Fazzino and her co-authors say 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.

“These combinations of nutrients provide a really enhanced eating experience and make them difficult to stop eating,” Fazzino 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.”

What are hyperpalatable foods?

In a Q&A session published to KU’s website, Fazzino said hyperpalatable foods include meal-based foods and snacks, including frozen or pre-prepared foods. They also include things like salty snacks, prepared meats and dairy items.

Fazzino said hyperpalatable foods do not occur naturally. Fresh or whole foods like apples usually contain one main palatability-related nutrient like sugar that is accompanied by things like fiber and water which slow down the the absorption of sugar into our bodies. Hyperpalatable foods differ as they have combinations of palatability-inducing nutrients that makes us want to keep eating.

While fresh foods that occur naturally are usually nice to eat and stimulate the reward system in our brains, hyperpalatable foods can excessively hit the reward system. This causes a highly rewarding eating experience, according to the Q&A session with Fazzino.

‘The Shadow of Big Tobacco’

“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 claims the “shadow of Big Tobacco” still holds some sway over the U.S. food system, even after tobacco companies largely separated from it during the mid-2000s. The study finds the availability of fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods and carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods was still high as of 2018, regardless of prior tobacco ownership.

“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.”

Fazzino’s study reports that people who eat more hyperpalatable foods are more likely to have obesity and suffer related health problems, 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.”

Co-authors of this study include KU doctoral students Daiil Jun and Kayla Bjorlie, along with Lynn Chollet Hinton, assistant professor of biostatistics and data science at KU Medical Center, according to KU. The researchers based their investigation into hyperpalatable foods off earlier work conducted by Laura Schmidt at the University of California-San Francisco.

Fazzino’s study can be found by clicking here. To learn more about it on KU’s website, click here.