Are there certain foods that you are unable to stop eating? Research conducted by Connecticut College shed some light on the addictive nature of sugary foods. For their particular study, they decided to use “America’s Favorite Cookie,” the Oreo. Their findings weren’t that surprising to people who already know the fact that Oreos and other sugary foods can be addictive. However, the fact that researchers compared the addictive potential of Oreos to illicit drugs like cocaine and morphine came as a shock to the general public.
Are Oreos as Addictive as Cocaine and Morphine?
To answer this question, a study was devised by Joseph Schroeder, professor of psychology and director of behavioral neuroscience at Connecticut College. His hypothesis was that high-fat/high-sugar foods like Oreos are addictive. To determine the degree to which they are addictive, he decided to compare the pleasure derived from Oreo consumption to the pleasure derived from illicit drugs (cocaine and morphine) among rats.
Study: Researchers compared the pleasurable effects of eating Oreos in a specific environment to the pleasurable effects of cocaine and morphine in a specific environment.
- Oreos vs. Rice cakes: They set up a maze, one side which contained Oreos and the other side which contained rice cakes (as a control). The reason they chose rice cakes as a control is because the rats don’t really feel pleasure from eating them. Researchers then gave the rats a choice of spending time on either side of the maze and measured the amount of time they spent on the side in which they were given Oreos.
- Cocaine or Morphine vs. Saline: In a separate maze, they took rats and set up a maze with cocaine and morphine injections on one side, and the other side which contained saline injections (as a control). Obviously, the rats chose to get the cocaine and morphine injections because it resulted in significantly more pleasure than the saline. It should be noted that researchers were licensed by the USDA to obtain and utilize the illicit drugs for their research.
Results: Researchers then compared the amount of time the rats spent on the Oreo side of the maze to the amount of time spent on the cocaine and morphine side of the maze. They determined that rats spent equally as much time on the Oreo side of the maze as they did on the drug side of the maze. Researchers used “immunohistochemistry” to accurately measure the expression of “c-Fos” – a protein that acts as a marker for brain cell activation in the “pleasure center” (nucleus accumbens). This allowed them to directly observe the degree of neural activation within a region that is known to contribute to addiction. Using the immunohistochemistry protocol, they discovered that more neurons became activated in the pleasure center upon consumption of Oreos compared to administration of cocaine or morphine.
Note: Of less importance was watching how the rats chose to eat the Oreo cookie. Like many humans, they typically broke it open and ate the middle prior to eating the outer chocolate cookie portion. Although this may not be of scientific relevance, it is an interesting side note.
- Source: http://www.conncoll.edu/news/news-archive/2013/student-faculty-research-suggests-oreos-can-be-compared-to-drugs-of-abuse-in-lab-rats.htm#.VKgSkyvF9Dw
Are certain foods as addictive as illicit drugs?
Based on the results from this particular study, it would appear as though certain foods like Oreos can be as addictive as illicit drugs like cocaine in rats. These “high-fat/high-sugar” foods stimulate the pleasure center of the rat brain the same way hard drugs do. Whether this finding carries over to the human population is largely up for debate. Although there are many similarities between rats and humans, we cannot definitively conclude that this finding would also hold true if a similar study were to be conducted among humans.
However, preliminary evidence supports the idea that “high-fat/high-sugar” are very likely to be addicting among humans. The idea for this study was conceived by neuroscience major Jamie Honohan who wanted to investigate how the increasing amounts of high-fat/high-sugar foods in low-income areas may be contributing to obesity. She commented, “Even though we associate significant health hazards in taking drugs like cocaine and morphine, high-fat/ high-sugar foods may present even more of a danger because of their accessibility and affordability.”
Lead researcher Joseph Schroeder also stated, “Our research supports the theory that high-fat/ high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do.” He continued by stating, “It may explain why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them.” In other words, the researchers are implying that the high-fat/high-sugar foods in society are likely directly contributing to obesity – especially in poorer communities.
They speculate that certain individuals are likely unable to stop eating unhealthy foods like Oreos due to the fact that when they eat one, it lights up the pleasure center of the brain – leading the individual to consume more; inevitably becoming addicted to their consumption. They also discussed the fact that the high-fat/high-sugar foods are often aggressively marketed to poorer communities. Many individuals of lower socioeconomic status fail to understand the addictive potential of these foods.
Important Takeaways from the Study
There are several key takeaways from the study, including that high-fat/high-sugar foods are likely addictive; possibly as much as illicit drugs.
- Food addiction is real: The major take away from the study is that high-fat/high-sugar foods like Oreos can be addictive in rats. Additionally it is important to consider that these findings may also apply to humans. Back in 2011, a research group from Yale University found that food addiction and substance dependence result in similar brain activity.
- High-fat/high-sugar foods: The initial hypothesis that high-fat/high-sugar foods are addictive has been supported by the findings in this rat study. Most people may not be consciously aware of the fact that high-fat/high-sugar foods are addictive and continue to buy them. It is believed that the aggressive marketing of these foods may contribute to obesity.
- Human findings: It is important to understand that this study cannot be generalized to the human population as a result of a study involving rats. There are differences between humans and rats and as humans, we have superior cognitive skills such as reasoning and self-control. However, we also cannot rule out the fact that the findings may prove to be similar among humans.
- Obesity from food addiction: The fact that rats are unable to stop eating the Oreos suggests that there may be similar effects among humans. Some people may have a significantly tougher time controlling their cravings and/or addictions to certain foods. This study suggests that many of the foods people have a difficult time kicking are likely high-fat/high-sugar like Oreos. This likely contributes to obesity.
- Reward center stimulation: It appears that the reward center of the rat brain is highly stimulated when a high-fat/high-sugar food like Oreos are consumed. Not only is the reward center activated, but it is activated to a more significant extent than when the rats use cocaine or morphine. Some speculate that findings would be similar among humans.
Problems with the study
There are several problems with drawing conclusions from this particular study. Although the hypothesis may have been supported with the findings, some would argue that the findings are inherently skewed as a result of confounding factors.
- Comparing food vs. drugs: While many people clearly have food addictions, comparing food with drug addiction is relatively difficult. Consuming food is considered a basic need of both humans and rats, whereas using drugs isn’t a “need.” Since we haven’t devised a rating scale for the most addictive foods, it is tough to compare them with the most addictive drugs. If given the choice of starving to death and getting to use a drug vs. getting to eat and not being able to use a drug, nearly everyone would prefer the food. The fact is that food is required for survival and drugs aren’t – therefore it is relatively obvious that rats and humans would choose food over drugs (if they are hungry).
- Hunger is a natural instinct: Researchers fail to mention the fact that hunger among rats is natural instinct. They are hard-wired to seek out food, and of course they are going to choose the food that elicits a greater pleasure-response. All creatures are wired to seek out rewards and choose the best-tasting food. The fact that rice cakes were at the opposite end is a pretty pathetic other choice. Why not have a food that rats like that has good nutritional properties rather than seeing if they would rather have Oreos than the cardboard that is a rice cake.
- Indirect comparison: It is impossible to assume that because the rats stayed by the Oreos longer than the cocaine and/or morphine injections that the Oreos are more addictive. Although one food was compared to another and a drug was compared to a placebo, nothing can be directly compared other than brain activation. If researchers wanted a more direct comparison, they could’ve gotten creative and infused some of the rice cakes with cocaine and/or morphine at one end of the maze placed Oreos at the other end.
- Rats vs. humans: Many people are drawing the conclusion that this study carries over directly to humans. It should be known that findings in rat studies do not always correlate to findings in human studies. In many cases, a particular drug affects rats one way and humans differently. Therefore until human studies are conducted, we cannot say that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine or morphine in humans.
Suggestions for Future Research
I was relatively intrigued by this particular study and believe that follow-up research should be conducted. As a starting point, the findings did support the initial hypothesis, but there is a clear need for further research.
- Confirm initial findings: The findings from this particular study should be confirmed by other researchers. It is important to verify the existing data before we can definitively state that the hypothesis has been supported. Preferentially a different study design should be utilized to directly compare the Oreos and drugs.
- Develop food addiction scale: Researchers may want to take the time to develop a food addiction scale for rats. If there isn’t already a drug addiction scale for rats, they may want to come up with a specific formula to measure addiction potential of various substances. They may then want to find a way to directly compare the food addiction ratings with the drug addiction ratings among rats. If they are able, researchers may eventually want to do the same among humans.
- Human study: It would be very interesting to conduct a similar study among humans to note the effects. While using illicit drugs is not often allowed, it may be justified for research purposes. If it cannot be conducted in the United States, then perhaps it could be conducted in a country with more lenient regulations regarding illicit substances for the purposes of psychological research.
- Infuse rice cakes: When conducting another study with rats, why not infuse the rice cakes with an illicit drug and compare the infused cakes directly to the Oreos. This way, the hungry rat would still be getting “food” which satisfies his instinctual need of hunger. This would allow for a more direct comparison of illicit drug to addictive food.
- Obesity research: It may be beneficial to compare dietary intake of clinically obese individuals to normal volunteers. Researchers could run a similar study comparing the food choice of a hungry person. They could place a healthy option on one side of the room, and Oreos on another side and determine which snack a person chooses. They could have an unlimited amount of each food on each side, and could determine how much time a person spends eating the food that they select. Brain scans could be collected to determine activity within the pleasure center of the brain.
- Use another food: Researchers could also decide to use another high-fat/high-sugar food instead of Oreos. If a follow-up study is conducted, they could decide to use a different food instead of rice cakes as well. One that provides nutritional benefit to the rats and that is satisfying in taste, without sugar would suffice.
Final thoughts on Food Addiction vs. Drug Addiction
It appears as though most addictions tend to increase activity in the pleasure center of the brain. Additionally, they tend to release abnormally large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This leads people to continue seeking out either a particular food or particular drug in order to experience “pleasure” or “reward.” There are many parallels between food and drug addiction and researchers still have a poor understanding of the specific degree to which certain foods are addictive.
The food industry can put as much sugar as they want in a particular food, and they do this not only for taste, but to get people psychologically “hooked” in the same way that a person would get hooked on a drug. Although most people are quick to dismiss comparisons of food to drugs, the fact is that many people experience “cravings” for a particular food in the same way that they have “cravings” for particular drugs. It is also important to mention that many of these high-fat/high-sugar foods lead to mental health conditions. (Read: Best diet for mental health).
Did you ever notice that people don’t “crave” most healthy foods? Instead they crave the high-sugar, high-artificial sweetener laced ones. This is due to the fact that these foods are capable of increasing activity in the reward center of the brain, and according to this study, the rewards are actually more powerful from foods (e.g. Oreos) than they are from drugs. People often have as difficult of time coping with Sugar withdrawal symptoms as they do upon discontinuing various drugs.
Think of the foods and drinks your addicted to and if you had to quit them. Like drugs, most people with food addictions will justify their addiction by stating that it’s not a drug. When in reality, it may actually be equally (or more) potent than a drug. While you may scoff at initial findings due to the fact that this was a rat study, keep in mind that similar brain activity has been revealed among those with food addictions and drug dependence.