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Saying 'Cheese Is as Addictive as Crack' Is Asinine

"A study like this can be devastating with respect to public understanding of what addiction is and what it's not​."

by Rachel Pick
Oct 25 2015, 5:53pm

Image: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons

I'm a big time cheese lover. Give me anything from burrata or a fancy triple cream down to a grilled cheese made with good old yellow American and I'm on board. But comparing my love of artery-clogging delights is not akin to a crack addiction.

That's how a new study by the University of Michigan is being portrayed in the press. Using the Yale Food Addiction Scale, researchers determined that pizza and other high-fat and high-glycemic load foods (like anything cheesy) were the most addictive. There is a real scientific basis for why you may enjoy cheese more than other foods: casein, a protein found in all milk products, releases a substance called casomorphins when the body breaks it down. Casomorphins attach to the brain's opiate receptors, making that plate of cheese fries extra delightful.

"A study like this can be devastating with respect to public understanding of what addiction is and what it's not"

But not everything that affects the brain's pleasure centers is addictive in the same way, which is why it's idiotic that pizza is being called "crack" by The LA Times, Gothamist, The Daily Mail, and other outlets.

These types of studies pop up from time to time—the last major press freakout came back in 2013, when a highly flawed study led to headlines suggesting that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine.

At the time, Motherboard spoke to Carl Erickson, director of the University of Texas's Addiction Science Research and Education Center. Unsurprisingly, he had some strong feelings about the idea that food and hard drugs lead to comparable types of addiction.

"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 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."

Erickson notes that "addiction" is never mentioned in the most popular and commonly used set of mental health guidelines, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Studies like the Oreo and pizza one can be more accurately called windows into a "compulsion" to eat a certain type of food. That's not the same as being "dependent" on a hard drug. Yes, we depend on food to survive, but if you swap out a slice of pepperoni for a salad, you're not going to have the same consequences as if an alcoholic quits drinking cold turkey.

"Dependency is essentially when you can't stop using the drug without help," Erickson said. "Preferring Oreos over rice cakes isn't a brain disease."

The same can be said for pizza. It's way easier for a turophile to turn down a third slice than for a crack addict to take a couple days off. Comparing the addictions might make for a snappy headline, but it's not fair to actual addicts.