America's favorite cookie may have just led to a major breakthrough in our understanding of food addiction. A study showing that Oreos may actually be more addictive than cocaine or heroin suggests our inability to resist the cookie, and perhaps other junk food, is more than a matter of weak self-control.
Researchers at Connecticut College studied how rats' brain behavior changed when exposed to Oreos versus rice cakes, a bland control if there ever was one. Rats were placed in a maze with Oreos on one end and rice cakes on the other; unsurprisingly, when rats had the option to go to either side of the maze, they went where the Oreo once was.
While the results are seemingly obvious, the researchers compared them to similar maze set-ups involving injections of illicit drugs versus saline. They concluded that "rats conditioned with Oreos spent as much time on the 'drug' side of the maze as the rats conditioned with cocaine or morphine."
Even more telling, researchers measured neural activation in the nucleus accumbens, the "pleasure center" of the brain. Eating Oreos activated "significantly more neurons" than cocaine or morphine.
Joseph Schroeder, the lead scientist in the study, said in a press release that the team's research provides evidence that "high fat/high sugar foods are addictive." In fact, he argues they may present an even greater danger than cocaine or morphine "because of their accessibility and affordability."
But the treatment of food as a potentially addictive substance is a fairly contentious subject.
Some worry that new research treating unhealthy food as an addictive substance will lead to over-regulation and taxation of our junk food. "Anything that provides pleasure (or relieves stress) can be the focus of an addiction," wrote Jacob Sullum at Forbes.
If we begin viewing Oreos as addictive and dangerous, the War on Drugs could easily become the War on Sandwich Cookies. "This is where the fallacious moral justification for forcible intervention, whether aimed at drug abuse or obesity comes from," said Sullum. "He cannot help himself, so we must help him whether he likes it or not."
At the same time, ignoring such findings may deny key insights into why people over-eat.
Just this summer, researchers at Boston Children's Hospital found that milkshakes with a higher glycemic index elicited greater activation in the nucleaus accumbens than milkshakes equal in calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrates, indicating "highly processed carbohydrates trigger food cravings and limiting these foods could help people avoid over-eating," lead researcher Dr. David Ludwig told CNN.
Both the milkshake and Oreo studies suggest new ways of dealing with obesity if we treat it as an addiction. For one, the task of losing weight and eating healthy may be much more neurologically complex and challenging than we originally thought. Ludwig said it may necessitate "finding ways to adapt our brains and behavior to the modern environment, one that contains intensely attractive food and drugs."
At the same time, recognizing that certain foods may be more addictive than others could provide new breakthroughs in weight management strategies and even anti-obesity drugs.
Even more importantly, these studies show we should have greater sympathy for people struggling with over-eating. Just as you wouldn't tell a junkie to just "exert willpower," that cold advice may not help people who are obese and potentially addicted to food. If nothing else, instead of cracking fat jokes, hopefully more people will display a greater sensitivity towards people who are overweight.