As an intern for a cheese magazine, when any type of cheese news comes out, I usually get all types of texts, emails, messages, etc. You would be surprised the amount of cheese news out there, but this most recent story really caught my eye.
“Cheese is addictive” they say, “as addictive as drugs.” As an avid cheese lover, I often joke about my cheese addiction, but could this be attributed to an actual biochemical compulsion? After reading the lime lighted study myself, however, the “dairy crack” argument is not all it’s cracked up to be.
The recent swarm to my inbox about addictive cheese came after a recent study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, exploring what foods are most addictive and why. Researchers conducted two studies; in the first, 120 undergraduate students filled out the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) and did a forced choice task—they picked which foods were most problematic from a series of presented photos.
Out of a list of 35 foods, cheese ranked as the 16th most problematic food, according to the students surveyed. Chocolate topped the list followed by ice cream, French fries, pizza, and cookies. Things like water, cucumber, broccoli, and beans were the least likely to be problematic.
The second study was similar but questioned 384 people from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk worker pool. In this study, instead of comparing foods side by side, researchers asked participants to rate how problematic each of the 35 foods were for them. Problematic was described in both studies as causing trouble eating less of the food or losing control over how much of it you eat. In this study, cheese came in as the 10th (out of 35) most problematic food among participants.
In both studies, the glycemic load and the amount of fat and processing were associated with problematic, addictive-like eating behaviors. The researchers offer that these specific foods share certain characteristics with drugs that are typically abused—namely, they are not naturally occurring in nature. Altering grapes into wine or poppies into opium increases their abuse potential. Similarly, researchers propose, increasing the amount of processing in food (upping the amount of fat and refined carbs) concentrates the “dose” of these ingredients to more than what is found naturally in food. With this increased dose as well as a more rapid rate of absorption of these nutrients, processed foods may share similar addictive properities as substances such as alcohol and drugs.
Why cheese took the hit in many reviews of this study baffles me. Cheese is typically high in fat, sure, but more times than not, it is not a highly processed food with added refined carbs. So how did some mildly “addictive” cheese turn into “dairy crack”? Some point to one of the central proteins of milk and cheese—casein—as the true addictive culprit.
The source for the casein-based “dairy crack” argument is the book 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart: Boost Metabolism, Lower Cholesterol, and Dramatically Improve Your Health by Dr. Neal Barnard. Barnard proposes that casein breaks down during digestion, releasing casomorphins. He explains to the Los Angeles Times that “casomorphins attach to the brain’s opiate receptors to cause a calming effect in much the same way heroin and morphine do.”
Preliminary studies have alluded that casomorphins can interact with the brain’s opioid receptors—which control pain, reward, and addictive behaviors. However, many of these studies were done on animals, not humans, and a more recent 2009 review found the opioid effect of casomorphins (through eating dairy) to be minimal.
So can you really be addicted to cheese? It’s unlikely. But as in most delicious things in this wide food world of ours, moderation is key!