Oreos more addictive than cocaine, study finds

A new study from Connecticut College suggests that Oreos might be more addictive than cocaine or morphine.

In the study, Professor Joseph Schroeder and his students studied the brains and behaviors of lab rats while being presented with, and eating, an Oreo.

On one side of a maze they’d give a rat an Oreo, on the other side they’d give a rice cake.  Then they’d see which the rats would choose if they started at the beginning of the maze.  What they found was that, no surprise here, the rats preferred to eat an Oreo over a healthy rice cake.

What was surprising – and I’m not kidding – the rats preferred to open the Oreos and eat the middle first, then eat the cookie outside. Seriously.

Oreo via Shutterstock.

Oreo via Shutterstock.

This just reminded me of my visit to the Russian Far East in 1993, to the city of Kamchatka, which, at the time, was still not a terribly “open” city.  Back in the day, it was customary to bring western delicacies to the Soviet Union, and then Russia – be they Marlboros or blue jeans – usually for trading on the black market, since they simply didn’t have such things in what was a somewhat less-advanced economy.  I brought Oreos.  My friend Marian Hagler (who is super-fluent in Russian) and I went to a local school and introduced the kids to America’s favorite cookie.  Marian translated while I taught the kids to open the cookie first, and then use their front teeth to scrape off the white creamy filling.

I considered it my personal blow for capitalist excess.

Russian students in Kamchatka in 1993 try their first Oreo, dutifully opening the cookie before eating the white filling first. ©John Aravosis

Russian students in Kamchatka in 1993 try their first Oreo, dutifully opening the cookie before eating the white filling first. ©John Aravosis

The next part was particularly interesting. They compared the Oreo vs. rice cake attraction to rats that were given the option of an injection of cocaine or morphine, versus an injection of saline.  What they found was that “the rats conditioned with Oreos spent as much time on the ‘drug’ side of the maze as the rats conditioned with cocaine or morphine.”

Granted, that may simply suggest that Oreos are tastier than rice cakes to the same degree that cocaine is more enjoyable than a saline injection.  What would have been interesting would have been comparing the drugs directly to the Oreos, then seeing which the rats chose – in order to appreciate just how strong the attraction was to Oreos vs. drugs.

What they did do, however, was still pretty enlightening.  They looked at the actual brains of rats that enjoyed Oreos, specifically at the pleasure center of the brain.  And found that Oreos activated “significantly more” neurons in the pleasure center than did cocaine or morphine.  In other words, Oreos might be even more addictive – or at least more pleasurable – than coke or morphine.

I’ve always suspected that some foods are potentially addictive.  Personally, I’m a huge fans of sweets, particularly chocolate and flour-y sweets, like cookies and brownies (and I know how to cook, which makes it an added danger).  Some weeks I’ll have a cookie or brownie every evening (I’ve found that frozen chocolate chip cookie dough works quite well in a toaster oven, permitting me to have 3 fresh cookies late a night whenever I want).  What I find is that in the evenings after dinner, I start craving the cookies or brownies if I haven’t already had some that day.  It’s in much the same same way that I crave my morning coffee the evening before.

All this talk of addictive food reminds me of the study last year that suggested that cheese, too, is potentially addictive:

The primary protein in milk is casein. When the human body digests casein, it produces casomorphins, which have an opiate-like effect on humans. Because cheese is denser than, for example, milk, the casein is more heavily concentrated, meaning that eating cheese produces a larger amount of casomorphins in the body compared to eating other dairy products.

Cheese-related research going as far back as the ‘80s has also confirmed that cheesecontains small amounts of morphine. Scientists postulate that cows produce morphine in their milk because it helps calm their calves, making sure the young cows bond with their mothers and come back for more (does this make cows the dairy farm equivalent of drug dealers?).

Obviously the Oreo study would need a lot more parameters to it.  For example, I’d be curious what exactly in an Oreo triggers the pleasure center of the brain – is it the sugar, or the fat, and what particular role, if any, might high-fructose corn syrup play (versus other types of sweetener)?  And what about brownies, or chocolate chip cookies?  Would they, or other comfort foods trigger a similar response in rats?  How about Mac & Cheese?

And is this at all related to the non-stop-eating problem one has when eating potato chips, or popcorn?  I don’t even particularly like popcorn, but if someone buys it at a theater, I can’t stop eating it.

The study potential is endless.  And yummy.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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