Do you ever feel like you’re addicted to cheese? That you can’t live without it?
Maybe your love of mozzarella doesn’t count as a psychological problem, but the average American consumes 39 pounds of cheese a year, so something has to explain that excess.
In 2015, scientists released a study suggesting that some professed foods could lead to addictive behavior. From there, journalists ran with it to the point of suggesting a key ingredient in most cheeses called casein could be the reason our love of cheese can border on the unhealthy (both physically and mentally).
The study itself was conducted at the University of Michigan. Scientists asked 120 undergraduates to take a survey on their eating behaviors and to rank 35 foods of varying nutritional value based on something called the Yale Food Addiction Scale (which is designed to diagnose food addiction). The goal was to find out which foods the students associated with their most addictive eating behaviors.
While the newspapers went wild with headlines comparing cheese to crack cocaine, all the study really found was that foods high in fat and/or refined carbohydrates were more associated with behavior defined by the students as addictive.
Despite the hype, cheese didn’t even rank at the top, but rather at #16 out of 35, well behind foods like chocolate, ice cream, and pizza. Another study that came out the same year ranked pizza at the top, giving the impression that cheese could be an addictive food because pizza is covered in it. A bit of a stretch.
The studies do mention that certain foods – the ones that are the most processed – appear to be more addictive, but that doesn’t mean they have much in common with hard drugs.
In fact, it was science writers, not the scientists themselves, who theorized that cheese and other dairy products could be especially addictive because of an ingredient called casein, which is a protein found in all milk products. A nutritionist named Cameron Wells quoted in many of the stories claimed that casein releases opiates called casomorphins during digestion. That sure makes it sound addictive!
But don’t be so easily fooled – this is speculation repeated in the news, not the findings of legitimate scientific studies. The dietician who made the claim also happens to work for an advocacy group which pushes veganism and urges people to give up cheese.
It’s not exactly an objective opinion. But science journalists can interview whoever they want for their stories, so it’s helpful to do a little research on so-called experts before you assume they speak for the majority.
The scientists of the original study at the University of Michigan were horrified at how their research was interpreted:
“I was horrified by the misstatements and the oversimplifications … and the statements about how it’s an excuse to overeat,” said lead author Ashley Gearhardt. “Liking is not the same as addiction. We like lots of things. I like hip-hop music and sunshine and my wiener dog, but I’m not addicted to her. I eat cheese every day. That’s doesn’t mean you’re addicted or it has addictive potential.”
Once again, it looks like the science is more complicated than the headlines. No surprises there.
It’s worth noting that the Yale questionnaire did ask participants to rank how often they overate certain foods and if they had tried and failed to quit eating them. The questions themselves are based on drug addiction survey questions, so the answers can appear misleading. Asking if someone gave up or reduced important social activities in order to eat certain foods certainly sounds like addictive behavior.
But anyone who has struggled with or been touched by drug addiction knows there’s a huge a difference between hard drugs and store-bought cheese.
That doesn’t mean food addiction isn’t real, it just means that we need to be much more careful before we compare it to illegal substances. Addiction is a tricky topic, and headlines simply can’t do it justice.
While you may be disappointed that you can’t blame cheese makers for overeating, it’s always good to get the real story behind the headlines.
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