No, Cheese Is Not Addictive Like Crack or Heroin

By Zachary Siegel 10/27/15

Just because people enjoy it doesn't make it addictive.

woman cheese mouth.jpg

Leave it to Teen Vogue and several other outlets to run stories saying “science” has found cheese to be addictive in the same way crack and heroin are addictive.

Given that the claim makes zero sense upon face value, one would hope reporters are merely seizing on an opportunity to embellish the allure of cheese, which we all know to be a tasty accessory to any meal.

But in this golden age of popular science, people actually took the effort to solidify the addictive nature of cheese. "[Casomorphins] really play with the dopamine receptors and trigger that addictive element," registered dietitian Cameron Wells told Mic.

How, exactly, does cheese play with dopamine?

We’re supposedly awash in dopamine and it has thus become a simplistic and reductive way to explain addictive behaviors. Neuroscientist Vaughn Bell called dopamine the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters, saying “it gives instant appeal to listless reporting and gives editors an excuse to drop some booty on the science pages.” Rather than booty, it’s an excuse to paste a golden brick of Manchego in the text.

To quickly debunk that casomorphins will hijack your brain and drag you to the gutter, a 2009 study review on the benign peptide found researchers could only elicit opioid-like effects in animals if they injected it straight into their body cavity or brain. So unless you’re melting down and mainlining cheese, casomorphins have few if any “addictive” effects.

So on what basis, if not through any rational scientific criteria, is cheese being dubbed crack? A recent study to come out of the University of Michigan asked two groups to rank a list of 35 foods from most addictive to least addictive. Obviously, salty and sweet things made it to the top while boring and tasteless items (e.g., broccoli, kale) were at the bottom. The researchers hypothesized foods with fats and sugars will feel more addictive.

The take-home story is actually rather boring and doesn’t make for good headlines. Food indeed has proteins and other chemicals which humans and other animals may find particularly enjoyable. So soda, pizza, gorgonzola and parmesan, stuff that in order to stay healthy we should eat in moderation, are not analogous to crack or heroin. You don’t need inferential statistics or knowledge of peptides to tell you this.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.