Is cheese an addictive substance?

I’ve come across a couple articles recently alleging that cheese is addictive, based on a study that pointed to pizza as the most addictive food out of the 35 foods they looked at. Both articles point to the supposed opiate effect of casein, a milk protein.

So is cheese addictive? And more specifically, is cheese addictive because casein is an opiate-like chemical? Spoiler alert: no.

Some cheese that you shouldn't eat

Some cheese that you shouldn’t eat

For one thing, some of the things The Fat Nutritionist has written about food addiction in general apply to cheese specifically:

First, we need food to survive. We do not need addictive drugs to survive (except in some cases where the addiction has progressed to the point of very high drug tolerance.) Second, it is next to impossible to overdose and kill yourself with food (in the form of food, not a concentrated vitamin or mineral supplement) unless you have some disease, food allergy or intolerance – and in this case, it is the condition that is to blame, not the food. Third, while food can certainly impact your mood and give you pleasure, it does not produce altered states of consciousness or affect one’s judgment in the way addictive drugs do.

With a truly addictive substance, permission and unfettered access would likely perpetuate the addiction and the feeling of loss of control. With food, in the context of eating competence, the opposite is true. The more permission you have, the less scarcity you fear, and the more responsible you become about feeding yourself in the ways that count, the more in-control you feel around food.

For another, Greek yogurt should be more addictive than cheese pizza*, if the “addictive” nature of pizza was about the opiate-like nature of casein. As the LA Times notes:

The straining process means it can take as many as 4 pounds of raw milk to make a single pound of Greek yogurt, according to the makers of Fage brand Greek yogurt. That final pound is a highly concentrated source of the milk protein casein, which is considered a “high-quality” protein because it contains a complete set of the essential amino acids that the body can’t make on its own, Bowerman says. Most brands of nonfat Greek yogurt contain between 15 and 20 grams of protein per 6-ounce serving.

Whey cheeses like ricotta, OTOH, should not be particularly addictive if casein is the culprit. Butter and cream also have insignificant amounts of casein. Milk should be moderately addictive–I guess about 1/4 as addictive as Greek yogurt, based on the above paragraph.

Another problem with the pizza=cheese=casein=opiate theory is that in both the abstract and the full text of the study that these articles talk about (they only link to the abstract), the “Objectives” section says, “We propose that highly processed foods share pharmacokinetic properties (e.g. concentrated dose, rapid rate of absorption) with drugs of abuse, due to the addition of fat and/or refined carbohydrates and the rapid rate the refined carbohydrates are absorbed into the system, indicated by glycemic load (GL).” [The study had a very specific definition of “highly processed”–which is good, because I was thinking ‘How in the heck are they measuring such a vague term?’–they are defining it as having added refined carbohydrates and/or fat.]

The thing is, casein does not fit the ‘rapid rate of absorption’ description, and casein is a protein, not “fat and/or refined carbohydrates”. Also, cheese itself was on the list, but ranked below pizza. There were actually two different ways that they measured foods’ addictiveness. On a Likert scale (basically, you rate a food for how addictive you subjectively think it is), pizza had the highest average rating out of 35 foods, at 4.01 (“based on 7-point Likert scale (1 = not problematic at all, 7 = extremely problematic)”, according to the study). Cheese was ranked 10th most problematic, with a rating of 3.22. (The least problematic food, cucumber, had an average rating of 1.53.) In a separate table based on a different group of subjects, “Average frequency count of how often a food was selected as problematic,” pizza was ranked at #4 and cheese at #16.

The ‘casein=opiate’ angle, doesn’t seem to come from the study they cite at all, but from a dietitian the Mic article quotes (and the LA Times quotes secondhand via the Mic article), Cameron Wells. Wells is associate director of clinical dietetics for the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, which has been criticized for its ties to PETA. (Also quoted is PCRM founder Neal Barnard, calling cheese “dairy crack”.) The Health and Nutrition section of PCRM’s website includes articles such as “21 Day Vegan Kickstart” and “Tips for Switching to a Vegetarian Diet”. PCRM recommends a vegetarian or, ideally, vegan diet. While Wells mentions the milk industry not wanting to fund research on the addictiveness of casein** in the Mic article, Wells seems to have her own agenda to promote veganism. The Mic article, and in turn the LA Times article, has basically allowed the PCRM to hijack their article with sketchy claims about the “addictive” nature of cheese that aren’t even related to the study they’re writing about, because of the media bias toward sensationalism.

The idea of promoting veganism by saying that milk products in general and casein in particular are addictive is not new, as you can see from this dubious article from a year ago, or from the “dairy crack” article, which is from 2009. I’m not saying that there isn’t a good case to be made for a vegetarian/vegan diet, but ‘cheese is addictive’ is not it.

Some links on ‘food addiction’/’addictive foods’ in general:

Exploring Food Addiction

Is Food Like a Drug?

Food Addiction, Natural Rewards, and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Is Eating an Addiction

The Other White Powder: Sugar and Food Addiction

Are the Three White Powders Ruining Our Civilization? Or Is the Screaming a Bit Overblown?

Also, on the general phenomenon of calling things ‘addictive’ that are not addictive substances:

Is ‘Porn Addiction’ a Thing?

*It takes ~10 lbs of milk to make cheese and only 4 lbs to make Greek yogurt, but once you factor in the percentage of the pizza that’s actually made up of cheese, I think you’re getting a less concentrated dose of casein–how much less would vary depending on the thickness of the crust, how thick the cheese is on top, and what you’ve got for toppings, but the cheese would have to be about half the pizza for the casein concentration to be the same, and I don’t think that that’s a realistic slice of pizza.

**But if someone else wanted to fund it, how would the dairy industry stop them?

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