Kitchen & Cooking

Cheese May Be Addictive, but Don't Call It 'Crack'

Poking holes in the reporting on a controversial new study

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When it comes to cheese, long ago I came to accept I may be addicted.

Crumbly Stilton from England snuggled up against fresh apple pie; perfectly ripened Humboldt Fog goat cheese drizzled with honey; buttery Cambozola slathered on slender crisps of bread; or salty, aged Myzithra sheep’s cheese from Crete grated atop pasta and bathed in brown butter—these are just a few of the ways I sate my dairy cravings.

So it was great to hear that, medically speaking, I might be as addicted to cheese as a crack fiend is to his drug of choice. At least, that’s what headlines about a recent study by the University of Michigan would have you believe.

Knowing that my dietary desires are beyond my control, I feel so validated.

For the study, researchers started with the Yale Food Addiction Scale to ascertain which foods were the most addictive. Surprise! Pizza and cheese were at the top of the list, along with other processed and fatty foods. It turns out that cheese, like all milk products, contains something called casein, a protein that releases opiates known as casomorphins as the body processes it. The casomorphins—note the suffix—bind to a brain’s opiate receptors.

The University of Michigan then speculated about what made these foods more addictive, using rats as study models. As the LA Times explained:

“Rats maintained on a diet of highly processed foods, such as cheesecake, exhibit downregulation in the dopamine system that also occurs in response to drugs of abuse,” reads the study. Translation? The rats used in a study on addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats exhibited addictive-like behavior in response to certain foods, such as cheesecake, but not to their regular rat food.

One Giant Leap

So how did crack cocaine get mixed up with cheddar and brie? Credit a six-year-old interview in Vegetarian Times with Dr. Neal Barnard. He's the author of “Breaking the Food Seduction” and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a vegan advocacy organization.

With a keen sense of how addicted headline writers are to a good clickbait quote, Dr. Barnard explained:

“Casomorphins attach to the brain’s opiate receptors to cause a calming effect in much the same way heroin and morphine do,” Barnard explains. “In fact, since cheese is processed to express out all the liquid, it’s an incredibly concentrated source of casomorphins—you might call it dairy crack.”

If you had any doubt that Dr. Barnard had an anti-dairy agenda, he also equates the nutritional value of cheese to be on-par with Vaseline.

Meanwhile, I’m going to my fridge right now to extract a wedge of mature Wensleydale from Yorkshire, and I’m going to make a cracking good grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.

My heart is going pitter-patter in anticipation.

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