A couple of weeks ago, before all the “news” about meat causing cancer and low-fat diets not working, the headlines proclaimed that “Cheese really is crack. Study reveals that cheese is as addictive as drugs“. Which, SPOILER ALERT, the study did not reveal at all.
The news articles stated that cheese is right up there with Oreos and crack cocaine in terms of addictiveness. Of course, we know that just because crack and cookies light-up the same neural pathways that doesn’t mean that they’re equally addictive. It just means that people eating cookies, or smoking crack, both derive pleasure from these activities. When I first saw the headlines about cheese I assumed that it was another such study and I was all set to roll my eyes and say that just because people find eating cheese pleasurable doesn’t make it addictive. But that’s not what the study did. What did they examine in this study?
It was a two-parter. The first study involved 120 undergrads completing the Yale Food Addiction Scale and then, using forced choice, indicating which foods, out of 35 foods with varying nutritional composition, they felt were most associated with addictive eating behaviours. The second study had 384 participants recruited through Amazon mTurk complete a modified version of the YFAS and then rate how likely they were to find, each of the same 35 foods used in the first study, addictive.
In the first study, the more highly processed foods were found to be more “problematic” by the participants than were the less refined foods. This means that foods such as; chocolate, ice cream and french fries topped the list, while foods such as black beans, broccoli, and cucumber brought up the rear. I’d just like to take this time to mention that cheese was ranked at 16, mid-way between the foods that were most likely to be associated with addictive-eating behaviours and those that were least likely to be associated with addictive-eating. Somehow, I doubt that crack would have been that far down the list.
In the second study, in which foods were not pitted against each other, the more highly-processed high-sugar and high-fat foods were again rated as being more problematic than the less refined foods. This time, the top three foods were: pizza, chocolate, and chips. The bottom three foods were: beans, carrots, and cucumber. Cheese moved up to number 10 in the ranks.
What does this study really tell us then? It tells us that people like palatable foods that are high in salt, sugar, and fat. It also tells us that people who experience difficulty controlling their intake of food are more likely to have trouble limiting their intake of these foods than they are of foods such as plain beans and vegetables. We like food that tastes good and we think that foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt generally taste best.Nothing in this study lends itself to comparisons of addiction to drugs. Nothing in this study suggests that cheese is addictive, in fact, if we are taking the rankings as indications of “addictiveness” cheese really isn’t all that addictive at all.