Here we go again. A new study which investigated so-called addictive effects of food got picked up by the media with moronic headlines. The study in question found similar pharmacokinetic properties (e.g. concentrated dose, rapid rate of absorption) between highly processed foods and drugs of abuse. The most rewarding food was found to be pizza, and some claim cheese is in fact the addictive proxy. Apparently, cheese contains a concentrated amount of a protein known to bind to opiate receptors in the brain. Unsurprisingly, here are some of the headlines we’ve seen since: “Cheese really is like crack: Study reveals the food triggers the same part of the brain as drugs” (Daily Mail) or “Cheese really is crack. Study reveals cheese is as addictive as drugs” (LA Times). It goes without saying that cheese is not crack, and such headlines could be actually demeaning to crack addicts.
The University of Michigan researchers performed two studies. In the first, 120 undergraduates were asked to complete the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) test which measures whether or not the participant has overeating problems or feels certain foods are difficult to refuse. Then the volunteers were asked to pick from a list of 35 foods varying in nutritional content the ones they associated with addictive-like eating behaviors. In the second part, the researchers investigated “which food attributes (e.g., fat grams) were related to addictive-like eating behavior (at level one) and explored the influence of individual differences for this association (at level two).”
The conclusion was that highly processed foods high in fat and glycemic load were most frequently associated with addictive-like eating behaviors. In the second study involving 384 participants, the UM scientists were able to predict whether a food was associated with problematic, addictive-like eating behaviors. Food cravings had a different effect on overweight people, seeing a greater stimulation in the brain’s “reward centers”.
“An unprocessed food, such as an apple, is less likely to trigger an addictive-like response than a highly processed food, such as a cookie,” the team wrote.
Pizza, apparently, was identified as the most addictive food stuff out there. One of the most widely used and abuse pizza toppings is cheese which contains an opiate called casomorphins. While all proteins contain some casomorphins, the substance is highly concentrated in cheese. “Casomorphins attach to the brain’s opiate receptors to cause a calming effect in much the same way heroin and morphine do,” says Neal Barnard, MD and author of the book Breaking the Food Seduction. “In fact, since cheese is processed to express out all the liquid, it’s an incredibly concentrated source of casomorphins you might call it dairy crack.” I think Dr. Barnard is on to something, since he obviously is smoking crack. Secondly, cheese was found to be less addictive than cookies or ice cream.
The top 10 most addictive foods identified by the study were (scale 1 to 7):
- pizza – 4.01
- chocolate – 3.73
- chips – 3.73
- cookies – 3.71
- ice cream – 3.68
- french fries – 3.6
- cheeseburger – 3.51
- soda (not diet) – 3.29
- cake – 3.26
- cheese – 3.22
The science on food addiction is controversial to say the least, but suffice to say food addiction isn’t considered a real medical mental health illness like drug abuse. Do you feel like banging your head against the wall or compulsively scratch your eye balls if you miss cheese for a week? Yes, foods interact with pleasure centers in the brain and some produce a soothing effect on the brain, in addition to satiating hunger. But that’s miles away from associating cheese or any food with heroin or crack. If you really like ice cream, it’s socially acceptable to say “i’m addicted to ice cream”. Scientifically speaking though, you’re not addicted to ice cream. Carl Erickson, director of the University of Texas’s Addiction Science Research and Education Center said:
“I think that a study like this can be devastating with respect to public understanding of what addiction is and what it’s not,” he told Motherboard. “First of all, there’s no science behind food being addicting in spite of what general public feels. Reporters often publish this sensationalism trying to get people to think you can be addicted to lingerie, to food, to a cell phone, to the tanning booth.”