If you’re looking for an excuse to wolf down that double-cheese pizza for lunch, you may have found it in a news story that’s gone viral. Among the headlines: “Cheese Is as Addictive as Cocaine,” “Cheese Really Is Crack,” and “Study Finds That Cheese Is Just as Addictive as Drugs.”
Researchers at the University of Michigan asked participants to report which foods in a list were most difficult to cut down on or eat in a controlled way.
Not surprisingly, highly processed foods with added fat and refined carbohydrates—things like ice cream, French fries, cookies, chips and cake—topped the list. Cheese ranked somewhere in the middle; it was considered less addictive than sugary, processed foods but more so than steak, eggs, bananas, and broccoli.
Pizza was near the top of the list, but just because pizza has cheese on it doesn’t mean it’s solely to blame for pizza’s irresistibility.
Going beyond the study, many of the news reports speculated that cheese may be addictive because of a protein in dairy products called casein. When broken down during digestion, casein releases substances called casomorphins, which according to a registered dietician who was quoted in many of the stories, have an addictive effect on the brain similar to that of morphine.
But in fact the evidence is weak that casomorphins, when digested, affect most of us this way. And the dietician who made the questionable claim works for an advocacy group called Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which pushes veganism and urges people to shun cheese. Hardly an objective voice.
The widespread attention to this story reminds us that what’s really addictive is sensationalized headlines about what we eat. Too bad there’s no treatment for that.
Robert J, Davis is the author of Coffee Is Good for You: The Truth About Diet and Nutrition Claims.