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Every so often, a headline pops up comparing cheese to cocaine. The reality of the situation is far more complex—and a lot less dire—than these articles might suggest.

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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Sources:
https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/scicurious/no-cheese-not-just-crack
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7E0mTJQ2KM
https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/how-addiction-hijacks-the-brain
www.journalofdairyscience.org/article/S0022-0302(94)76998-8/pdf
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0117959
https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn3212
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666311006222
https://link.springer.com/protocol/10.1007%2F978-1-61779-458-2_23
https://mindhacks.com/2012/05/07/as-addictive-as-cupcakes/
https://munchies.vice.com/en_uk/article/paax39/study-claiming-sugar-is-as-addictive-as-cocaine-provokes-controversy
https://www.nature.com/articles/nrendo.2017.61
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091305717300035
[INTRO ♪].

Most of us dig cheese. Like, really dig cheese.

Sure, it’s not so great for the waistline, but… pizza, you know? But if you find yourself adding parmesan to everything, maybe your appreciation for curdled milk isn’t just a passion— maybe it’s an addiction. No, really!

Haven’t you heard? According to SCIENCE, cheese is just as addictive as crack! Cue the ominous music!

Bam-buh-ba-nah! But before you trash your gruyere to go cold turkey, let’s take a moment to examine where headlines like that come from. They’re usually sensationalized reporting on pretty tame research findings, like that cheeses contain weak, opioid-like painkillers.

The truth is, few things are really as addictive as cocaine. There are three major kinds of studies that lead to scary headlines like that: preference tests in animals, behavioral studies of people, and brain scans. One way scientists can gauge addictive potential is by dosing lab animals with the substance in question and seeing if they show a preference for it later on.

For example, if researchers inject rats with morphine in a certain chamber, the animals are very keen to return to that chamber ... go figure. I mean, think about it—if you always got a great present in a certain room, you’d be pretty excited to go back, too. When it comes to cheese addiction, though, they’re not just main-veining mozzarella into the little guys.

Some people made the drug-cheese connection because cheeses contain casomorphins, which studies have shown can act like super mild opioid painkillers. But when researchers inject casomorphins into rats, they show no preference for the places where they were injected with them, suggesting that they don’t really have addictive potential. There’s also no evidence that casomorphins make their way to the brain following cheese consumption.

The compounds are pretty easily broken down in our stomachs. So casomorphins in your diet aren’t going to leave you jonesing. But that doesn’t necessarily prove that cheese isn’t addictive— especially since we aren’t rodents.

So, researchers can also look for addictiveness more directly by analyzing people’s behaviors. For example, they can look at whether different foods are related to addictive-like eating—things like having cravings, or feeling like you just can’t stop yourself eating something. And studies with hundreds of participants have identified cheese as one of the foods associated with these addictive-like behaviors.

But cheese doesn’t come out on the top of such lists— instead, it’s middle of the pack: just 16th out of 35 in one 2015 study, for example. That’s below the likes of chocolate, ice cream, and french fries. But for some reason, when that paper came out, everyone fixated on the cheese.

Even if cheese was #1, doctors point out that addictive-like behaviors are called addictive-like, not addictions, for a reason. While addictive-like eating does share some similarities with drug addictions, many psychologists note the characteristics of the two only partially overlap. Drug addictions have the potential to be much more severe.

There’s little evidence that we experience withdrawal symptoms from any type of food, for example, and we rarely choose eating over more interesting activities, like hanging with friends. When we talk about addiction to hard drugs like cocaine, we’re talking things that you’d lose your house over, not just what tempts you at the buffet. We simply don’t hear about people spending their last dollars on gorgonzola.

And that’s in spite of the fact that cheese does activate some of the same parts in your brain as addictive drugs. It’s well established that the stuff we get addicted to causes dopamine release in our brain’s reward system— key areas that give us a sense of wellbeing and pleasure. That’s something researchers have seen using fMRIs, which estimate activation of brain regions by monitoring blood flow.

And when people are shown tasty treats while undergoing an fMRI, that same reward system which plays a large role in the formation of addiction does become active. But, even though on the surface that sounds like hard evidence that food and drug addictions are one and the same, many scientists argue it’s a bit of a red herring. It’s no surprise that yummy stuff activates the reward circuit— that’s literally what the system is there for: to motivate us to do things that keep up alive, like fuel our bodies.

Drug addiction takes advantage of that— it hijacks and artificially stimulates the reward system already in place. What’s more, the dopamine release in the brain from an addictive drug like cocaine can be anywhere from two to ten times higher than inherently enjoyable things, such as food. And addictive drugs don’t just activate the reward system once— they create a cycle of dependence because the brain dampens its dopamine response each time, so more and more of the drug is needed to get the same high.

There’s no consistent evidence that this happens with food, even in people who have eating disorders that involve pathological binging. That said, there is a lively ongoing debate amongst psychologists as to whether obese sufferers of Binge Eating Disorder—or B. E.

D— are genetically predisposed to experience a ‘drug like hit’ from sugary, fatty foods. But even if food addictions are a thing for that specific subset of people with that disorder, that doesn’t automatically make cheese or any food, quote, “as addictive as crack” to the general population. That would be like saying because some people are compulsive exercisers, running is as addictive as heroin.

While there is some evidence that cheese is more likely than some foods to be consumed in a problematic manner, and it does act as a reward, we currently don’t have any reason to believe that your favorite brie has the same addictive qualities as cocaine. So, by all means be mindful that your eating habits are driven by sensible dietary choices, but don’t mind throwing some cheese in there now and then. After all, cheese isn’t exactly as addictive as crack.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! If you want to learn more about what happens during addictions, check out our episode on the science of sugar addiction. [OUTRO ♪].