There have been several news articles (The Independent, The Daily Express and The Telegraph) alluding to the idea that eating cheese is as addictive as crack cocaine (nothing like being dramatic!).
The theory here is that foods in their natural form are not addictive, however once they are processed and even concentrated they can become highly addictive. An example is drinking water. It is not addictive but beer containing 5% ethanol and roughly 95% H2O is more likely to be abused; and spirits containing 20-75% ethanol (therefore less H2O) even more so. In their natural forms of sugar & fat; fruit & nuts are not deemed to be addictive but once processed together into a food item such as a biscuit, the ‘concentration’ has been increased and potentially could be more addictive.
To date most of this research has been done using rats, is very much in the early stages of research and is not really comparable to humans. So what did the study behind the headlines actually find? Well they recruited 120 undergraduate participants and 384 participants from Amazon’s workforce. The participants were given a survey that measured addictive-like behaviours, originally designed for substance abuse. The participants were then given a forced-choice questionnaire whereby they had to choose between two choices of different foods and were asked to pick the food they were most likely to experience problems with, such as feeling like they had not eaten enough of that food. For example, cucumber or pizza? Seems a little leading to me, because I just can’t get enough cucumber! The top ten most ‘problematic’ foods identified included:
- French fries
Cheese was actually the 16th most ‘problematic’ incase you were wondering why it wasn’t listed…and incase you were interested, cucumber was number 33 (out of 35).
The participants were then asked to rate these foods from 1-7 on how ‘problematic’ they thought the foods were, 7 being the most problematic and 1 being the least problematic (cucumber gets a 7 from me!). The top ten most ‘problematic’ foods included:
- French fries
Cheese is mentioned and it is in the top ten. However what is confusing and misleading here is why the news reports focus on cheese, as it was only mentioned 4 times in the entire study! And cocaine was only mentioned once and not even in comparison to food. This is such a good example how the media distort facts. Despite this it was an interesting article, however there were many limitations to the study that was behind the headlines in question:
- Participants were not really comparable to general British public (120 students & 400 workers from Amazon Mechanical Turk company all from America)
- Food reported as the most problematic had mean results of 4 out of 7, which doesn’t really seem that problematic
- Just because participants reported they had problems does not mean biologically they were actual problems
- We do not know how much of these foods people consumed
- Weight and height were self reported not actually tested
What can we take away
Well it is interesting that the study found that people reported that foods higher in fat and sugar, and which were processed felt more addictive compared to non-processed foods e.g. cucumber (the least problematic on the second test). The study didn’t look into why, however we could hypothesise it is because those foods are labelled as ‘bad’, ‘restricted’ or ‘not allowed’. When you associate those feelings with food, it wouldn’t be surprising if people felt these foods were problematic! Incorporating these foods into a healthy balanced diet may help with reducing problems being associated with these foods. In addition finding recipes and meals you enjoy that are less processed may also help.
So is cheese addictive?
Who knows, this article certainly didn’t show that and the evidence it did show is not enough to tailor advice.
Cheese is a great source of protein and calcium. Hard cheese in particular is high in saturated fat and calories; ideally eat in moderation (matchbox size portion size) or opt for lower fat cheese types such as cottage cheese, low fat cream cheese etc.
Schulte EM, Avena NM, Gearhardt AN (2015) Which Foods May Be Addictive? The Roles of Processing, Fat Content, and Glycemic Load. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0117959. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0117959