Are Oreos Actually More Addictive Than Cocaine?
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Are Oreos Actually More Addictive Than Cocaine?


more addicitive than cocaineThe post originally published November 1, 2013.

A study out of Connecticut College made the media rounds because scientists produced preliminary data showing that Oreo cookies have the potential to be more addictive than cocaine.

The initial idea behind the study was an attempt to understand the connection between obesity and the prevalence of foods that are high in fat and sugar in low-income areas. The scientists hypothesized that if fatty, sugary snacks were addictive, that would help explain the growing obesity epidemic. And what’s the most affordable and available food that’s high in both fat and sugar? Why, Oreos of course.

So Dunk That in a Glass of Milk

The study’s preliminary results indicated that rats favored Oreos, given the option of Oreos or rice cakes in a maze, just as they preferred cocaine or morphine over saline in another maze. What human can’t relate to that? The brain activity of the rats was also measured when they were given Oreos, cocaine or morphine, and here’s where things became especially interesting: there was more brain activity when the rats munched on Oreos than when they took in the cocaine or morphine. In other words, rats found Oreos more rewarding than the sort of illegal stimulants that send many to rehab.

And so, the Internet concluded, Oreos are more addictive than cocaine.

Except that’s not quite true. These initial results are just that, initial and therefore un-scrutinized. This study has provided another hypothetical correlation between addiction and food high in fat and sugar. It’s still a hypothesis and thus lacking concrete, undeniable proof through multiple independent studies. Still, this in no way makes the Connecticut College study less valid or fascinating.

Let’s Get Scientific Though

What’s interesting here is that the study examined not only the behavioral response in the rats when they decided on their treat of choice but also the brain’s response. Essentially, researchers were targeting a behavior (eating Oreos or taking cocaine) and examining how the brain responds to this stimulus. The brain is a vastly complex, multi-tasking organ—one with over one hundred billion neurons. The brain has many structures with specialized functions, ranging from producing emotions to controlling your five senses to regulating your movements and generating your thoughts. Since the researchers couldn’t look at brain activity throughout the whole brain—it would be too vast a result and very non-specific—the study focused on a part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens or the “pleasure center.”

The brain not only drives your needs (those of eating, breathing, and sleeping) but also your wants. That’s where the nucleus accumbens comes in. Basically, this part of the brain serves to receive an increased electrical and biochemical signal, called dopamine, when the brain realizes that it has achieved what it wants. The nucleus accumbens receives the large dopamine signal and triggers the pleasurable response. Consider the way your body may be very thirsty after exercising, making you want water. Well, when you finally run home from the gym and indulge that want with a cool glass of H2O, the brain has achieved what it wants and increases this signal to make you feel good about drinking water to reinforce this behavior. This increased signal is the brain’s version of a reward (its dessert after eating its broccoli, if you will). It’s this signal which causes that ecstatic feeling or elation at completing a task. It’s also the final step in the cycle of wanting more: once this signal is increased and the brain enjoys that feeling of reward, it continues to crave it, to want it, to need it.

The brain’s “pleasure center” is also the structure that is hijacked in the case of addiction. The nucleus accumbens is the location where the electrochemical signal surges when the brain satisfies a “want” but the result is the same: the pleasure center is flooded with a strong signal and makes the brain feel good. The brain longs for that good feeling of a signal surge in the pleasure center and this is where the addiction process begins, because no other form of reward comes close to satisfying the drug “want.” Nothing else can make the brain feel as good…except maybe Oreos?

Cookies Win Every Time

What this means is that Oreos fulfilled the rats’ wants and activated the pleasure centers of their brains, driving more want and the Oreos did so more effectively than cocaine—definitely a good argument that foods which are high in sugar and fat are addictive. But this link between an excited brain and fatty, sugary foods is just that—a connection—and doesn’t yet explain causation. So, dear headline writers, Oreos are a “want” and not a “need,” which means that it hasn’t yet been proven that Oreos—or any foods high in fat or sugar—cause addiction.

That also means that we can all rest a bit easier knowing that Cookie Monster has not yet been deemed an addict.

 Photo courtesy of Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped) 

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