In today’s health-conscious world, the pendulum of whether a certain food or drink is good for you or bad for you seems to swing frequently and wildly. One day we’re told that red wine is crucial to fight aging, then the next we’re told that it actually hampers cellular healing and therefore contributes to the aging process. The road between something being healthy or unhealthy seems very short, and very well-traversed.
And now, there’s a new trend emerging that not only highlights this problem, but also appears to willingly lean into it: the habit of various media outlets telling us that eating [blank] food is like taking various forms of class-A drugs.
While food addiction—or perhaps eating addiction is the more appropriate name—is no doubt a serious issue for some people, the penchant for comparing seemingly banal foods to hardcore narcotics in terms of how they affect our bodies might be taking things a little bit far. Or is it? Let’s take a look at a few recent examples of this phenomenon and try to assess how valid these claims are.
Cheese is crack.
Photo: Flickr/Anne Swoboda
The media claim: Researchers from The University of Michigan performed a study that used data from about 500 people who completed the Yale Food Addiction Scale to assess which foods are the most addictive. Pizza came out on top, primarily due to the fact that a protein called casein that is present in dairy products releases opiates called casomorphins during digestion, which in turn trigger our dopamine receptors. You know, just like crack does. When this happens often enough, it can lead to addiction.
The straight dope: The study simply gathered statistical (and quite possibly anecdotal) data on which foods people said they found the most “addictive.” There was no actual medical or physiological data involved. Based on those responses, what the researchers actually hypothesized was that it’s highly processed foods with added fats and/or refined sugars that really feel the most “addictive”—not just cheese (cookies and chips ranked fairly high as well). The researchers themselves were not happy with the ensuing headlines claiming that “cheese is crack,” with the lead researcher telling the Huffington Post, “Our study found that people reported cheese…as less problematic than highly processed foods that contained added fat and high [glycemic load]…. Thus, the bounds of our data suggest that highly processed foods are most implicated in addictive-like eating.” In fact, recent evidence suggests that the effect of casomorphins on the brain is fairly mild. Crack’s effect on the brain? Not so mild. So, if you find yourself hocking all your valuables in order to get enough cash to buy a chunk of gouda, it might not be the cheese that’s to blame.
(At least one media outlet had the good sense to run a story on the study with the title “Why Processed Food Is Like Crack” instead. That’s more like it!)
Photo: Flickr/Torben Hansen
The media claim: A Connecticut College study found that eating Oreos activated more neurons in the pleasure centers of lab rats’ brains than drugs such as cocaine. The rats were put into a maze and allowed to decide whether they hung out near rice cakes or Oreos, and the cookies were a much more popular choice (to the surprise of…no one). These results were compared to another study where rats in a maze were given the choice between hanging in an area where they were injected with saline or one where they could get a shot of cocaine or morphine. Apparently, the rats liked the cookies as much as they liked the drugs.
The straight dope: Professor Joseph Schroeder, who worked on the study, has said that its results “may explain why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them.” You know when that statement would probably be especially true? When they’re stuck in a maze!
This may actually be part of a larger conversation about the true nature of addiction, and how the whole lab-rats-in-a-maze convention may be flawed. For writer and former addict Johann Hari, something just never seemed right about it. So Hari met up with Canadian psychology professor Bruce Alexander, who had replicated previous experiments studying addiction, but instead of experimenting on solitary rats, he offered the option of clean or drugged water to rats kept in something he called “Rat Park,” a communal rat colony that had plenty of other stimuli, including wheels, colored balls, food, and—perhaps most importantly—other rats to play with (and mate with—oh yeah). What Alexander found this time is that, when the rats tried heroin, they weren’t very interested. In fact, not a single one overdosed. What’s more, once the rats who had become addicted while in isolation were put into Rat Park, they stopped “using” almost immediately. For Hari and Alexander, this suggested that addiction is wildly misunderstood: “Addiction is an adaptation to your environment. It’s not you; it’s the cage you live in.”
Sugar is eight times as addictive as cocaine.
Photo: Flickr/Melissa Wiese
The media claim: The study in question here, performed by researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, derives similar findings to the University of Michigan one mentioned above. And, to be clear, the culprit in question here is not really someone eating spoonful after spoonful of granulated sugar, or even necessarily candy bars and ice cream, but the high sugar levels that are hidden in processed foods that you wouldn’t normally expect to find them in (example: tomato sauce). According to one of the researchers, Dr. Nicole Avena, when we eat these sugar-laden, highly-processed foods, it can “produce behaviors and changes in the brain that one would use to diagnose an addiction, like drugs and alcohol.”
The straight dope: There is some real legitimacy to the fact that sugar is addictive and really screws with your body. According to Cardiologist Dr. James O’Keefe, “When we eat wheat flour and sugar in processed foods, [it] spikes our sugar, then insulin. Those are the hormonal disturbances that make you store belly fat, and then you are hungry for more sweets and starchy junk food.” In other words: it’s a vicious cycle—one that O’Keefe suggests we try to get out of as quickly as possible by eating less sugary, and therefore less addictive foods (cucumbers, carrots, and beans rank the lowest in addictive qualities). But what about the media’s thesis that sugar is eight times as addictive as cocaine? Well, let’s examine one element of each addiction: withdrawal. O’Keefe states that sugar withdrawal will end within six weeks. However, withdrawal from cocaine can take months, and can include symptoms like severe depression and even suicidal thoughts. So while sugar can be addictive, it may be extreme to say that the toll its addiction takes on your life is eight times greater than—or even equal to—that of cocaine.
Brownies affect the brain the same way meth does.
The media claim: Chocolate is not just an innocent indulgence. According to a study conducted by Drexel University nutritionist Jennifer Nasser and colleagues at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center, “people experienced craving and pleasure when eating chocolate similar to the feeling people get when they take drugs.” Researchers fed subjects one of three different substances: a piece of a chocolate brownie, water, or methylphenidate (a.k.a., Ritalin). While they did, they flashed a light into the subject’s eyes, which triggered electrical signals that could be measured by something called electroretinography in order to examine how much dopamine was being released by the brain. They found that, while the water had no effect, the brownie bite triggered a spike of dopamine almost identical to that caused by the methylphenidate.
The straight dope: Chocolate may not be the real culprit here. By Nasser’s own admission, the sugar and fat in brownies probably played a bigger role here than the chocolate. Plus, there were also only nine subjects, which is not exactly a large sample size. The real discovery of the study, in her eyes, was how effective electroretinography (ERG) is at measuring dopamine responses, as opposed to more invasive or expensive options like spinal taps or PET scans. That in and of itself could be very useful in helping treat people who suffer from binge eating disorders—even though the specific foods that spike dopamine in each person’s brain might vary, and not even include chocolate.
(However, if you’re still looking to score some chocolate meth, then this guy could definitely be of service.)
Ice cream is as addictive as drugs.
Photo: Flickr/Zechariah Judy
The media claim: According to a study done by researchers from the Oregon Research Institute, “cravings for the dessert were similar to those experienced by drug addicts.”
The straight dope: Let’s examine this one a little closer. What the study actually found is that overeating high fat and high sugar foods (ice cream counts as both) winds up downgrading the mental “reward” we feel when doing so. According to Oregon Research Institute’s Dr. Kyle Burger, “this down-regulation pattern is seen with frequent drug use, where the more an individual uses the drug, the less reward they receive from using it.”
In other words, over time, like with drug abuse, people build up a tolerance to foods like ice cream. According to Dr. Burger (mmmm, burger), “the data supports the theory that overeating such foods may result in changes in how the brain responds to those foods in a similar fashion seen in drug addiction.” Basically, the more often we eat them, the less of a pleasurable feeling we get in our brains from doing so. Not only do we have an ensuing feeling of disappointment, but it may lead us to eat more ice cream (or other high-fat, high-sugar foods) to try and match our previous level of euphoria—which, like with drug addiction, can be very elusive.
So, while there is some real interesting science at play here, the study is not saying that we’re going to start jonesing for rocky road the same way a junkie does for heroin. It’s simply that our brains develop a tolerance to these kinds of foods over time, and the pleasure we derive from eating similar amounts of them lessens (possibly due to a decrease in dopamine release, though that is technically only a hypothesis).
The real lesson here is this: Everything in moderation. Cheese, ice cream, chocolate, and especially crack.