Even the weird-flavored Oreos can't be physically addicting. Photo: Oreo Instagram
If you give a mouse a cookie, you can spend all day following it around the house while it wants to do a bunch of tedious activities. Or, you can trap it in a box, keep feeding it cookies, and then make the outrageous claim that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine.
Students at Connecticut College opted for the second option, and the consequences that ensued were much more annoying than making some arts and crafts with a darn mouse. Fox News reported that a "College study finds Oreo cookies are as addictive as drugs," Forbes explained "Why Your Brain Treats Oreos Like a Drug," and a ton of other sites ran with the story as well.
Here's how the experiment, which has not been peer reviewed and has not been presented yet, went down. Mice were placed in a maze, with one end holding an Oreo and the other end holding a rice cake. The mice, without fail, decided to eat the Oreo over the rice cake, proving once and for all that mice like cookies better than tasteless discs with a styrofoamy texture.
"Just like humans, rats don't seem to get much pleasure out of eating them," one of the researchers said in a press release, the same press release that says "Connecticut College students and a professor of neuroscience have found 'America's favorite cookie' is just as addictive as cocaine."
To be fair, it's not clear if the wild overselling of the research is on the part of the researchers or the people who wrote the press release. I've reached out to both the communications team at Connecticut College and the researchers involved, and will update when I hear back.
But back to the study: As a control, they did the same experiment, this time substituting an Oreo with an injection of cocaine or morphine and the rice cake with a shot of saline. Shockingly, the mice preferred "drug," to "not drug."
After you think about it for a second, the research can be dismissed out of hand. College students, if they want, are allowed to perform experiments like this. Maybe it's important for people to know not to stock their floors with rice cake crumbs if they want to make sure whatever mice may be infesting their house are well fed, but don't enjoy their food. There's nothing inherently wrong with doing that test, just as there's nothing inherently wrong with talking about how the mice ate the Oreo as if it's important (icing first, in case you're wondering).
But when the study is picked up by major media outlets throughout the country, it can do real damage, according to Carl Erickson, director of the University of Texas' Addiction Science Research and Education Center.
"I think that a study like this can be devastating with respect to public understanding of what addiction is and what it's not," Erickson said. "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."
Medically speaking, "addiction" is never mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (which is still the most commonly used mental health classification system, after the release of the fifth edition was met with controversy).
"DSM-IV never uses the word addiction. What it does do is describe chemical dependence. Even problem gambling is not called an addiction, it's called compulsive gambling disorder, but there's no doubt there's people who have trouble with gambling," Erickson said. "There's just no reason to call it addiction."
What then, of the finding that Oreos "activated significantly more neurons than cocaine or morphine?" That claim is like comparing apples and … doing a line. They have different mechanisms of action, and just because something "activates more neurons" doesn't mean it's more addictive. You can stop eating Oreos with no physical symptoms. You can eat a Nilla Wafer instead if you really want to. But you can't go from drinking two handles of vodka a day to drinking orange juice.
"Dependency is essentially when you can't stop using the drug without help," he said. "Preferring Oreos over rice cakes isn't a brain disease."
Of course, the students at Connecticut College aren't solely to blame for all of this. There have been dozens of studies comparing the addictiveness of random things (power! corn syrup!) to cocaine. And Motherboard is guilty, too, although we've tried to avoid saying users develop a chemical dependence to Facebook—at least with a straight face.
It's buzzy and sensational to call things as "addictive as cocaine," and it's a hell of a good way to get your study noticed by news outlets. But addiction researchers are split on how to even define how "addictive" a substance is. That's one of the reasons the word is never classified in DSM-IV.
"Is it how hard a drug grabs people? Is it the percentage who develop a habit? Is it how dangerous it is?" Erickson said.
He's developed his own measure for it: The percentage of people who will develop the disease of dependency, based on the DSM-IV guidelines, if they use a drug. By that measure, if scientists want to make headlines, they should be comparing the addictiveness of that horrific new Chinese Food song or that delicious ramen place on the corner to nicotine, not cocaine.
"According to that, the most chemically addictive is nicotine because one third of people who use it during their lifetime will develop dependency," he said. "For cocaine, it's 20 percent. For heroin, it's 23 percent."
Noted. In that case, debunking bad science is as addicting as a refreshing bite of tomacco.