Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
For those who follow health news, there was no way to avoid tripping over the combination of Oreos and cocaine this week. The relevant headlines, of which there are many, suggest in essence that Oreos are as dangerous and addictive as cocaine.
The study in question, which has made literally thousands of headlines, was conducted in rats, not people. Thus far, it has not been published, nor even presented at a conference- although that is pending. The onslaught of headlines making hyperbolic assertions is the product of a press release issued by Connecticut College, where the research was done.
The study showed two basic things. First, rats in a maze are about as inclined to go to Oreos as to cocaine or morphine. And second, the Oreos trigger the same kinds of chemical responses in the rat brain as the drugs.
As for the first finding, rats might like Oreos as much as cocaine either because Oreos are intensely pleasurable to rats, or because cocaine isn’t. A headline that would make just as much sense as those we actually got is this: “cocaine no more harmful than cookies.”
In humans, the most compelling effects of drugs like cocaine are the psychological effects, not any direct physical response we are likely to share with rodents. A small, as yet unpublished study in rats can tell us almost nothing truly relevant about the effects of psychoactive substances in humans for the very reason that they are psychoactive. While we may acknowledge the similarities of basic brain structure between mice and men, the mind of a person and the mind of a rat are clearly not comparable.
As for the second finding, the common chemical responses evoked by cocaine and cookies in the rat brain, this is to be expected. There are only so many ways the pleasure centers in the brain can respond to any stimulus. Brain responses to a caress might look about the same. If rats, or people, gravitate to a caress, and if that caress evokes a pleasure response in the brain, are we inclined to assert that caresses are more addictive than cocaine?
While even one-time use of cocaine could be dangerous, most people harmed by such drugs are harmed over time. The addictive properties of drugs result in increasing use over time, cravings, and a potentially devastating withdrawal syndrome. To my knowledge, the new study examined none of these. There is no evidence that rats need and eat more and more Oreos over time, or that they suffer withdrawal. Such information would be essential before any valid claim could be made about the comparability of cookies and cocaine.
Neither of the study findings, therefore, says much about Oreos and people, and neither indicates even remotely that Oreos are “more addictive” than cocaine- and in fact, common experience indicates quite clearly that they are not.
But let’s be clear: I am not here to exonerate the Oreo. The Oreo is, and has long been, something of a standard-bearer for a highly processed diet of pseudo-food and junk. It does limited harm by itself to be sure, but it does do harm together with the company it keeps- and it certainly isn’t doing health any good.
And, yes, in all the ways that matter, Oreos are addictive. Why do we need to hear this again? We have already heard from Michael Moss, and others before him, that processed foods are willfully designed to be irresistible and to maximize the calories it takes before we feel full and stop eating them. We should not be surprised that food can be addictive; food and sex are the reasons the capacity for addiction exists in the first place. Addiction is an unintended consequence of a system laid down to reward and encourage behaviors that foster survival. In a modern world of junk food and mind-altering drugs, a system that uses pleasure to promote survival is all too readily co-opted and corrupted.
Given what we already know about the harms of a junk food diet, what makes the response of a few rats to Oreos so titillating? Why do we even care about the comparison between cookies and cocaine? What is the basis for a deluge of hyperbolic headlines in response to a press release? To me, this all seems symptomatic of a culture with an addiction problem far bigger than cocaine or cookies. We are addicted to scandal and scintillation, and utterly disinterested in solutions. Rome burns, and we fiddle.
What, exactly, are we waiting for before we decide there is enough information to tell our children: step away from the box of glow-in-the-dark foods, and nobody will get hurt?
Dr. David L. Katz