Sometimes those scientists and researchers really cheese me off. They certainly know how to bring a guy down. Seems like every time I open a magazine or newspaper, I find out something I have enjoyed my entire life is bad for me. As a matter of fact, the most recent finding that is supposed to worry me is that cheese, which I have loved in all its glorious manifestations since forever, is as addictive as crack. Well, at least, that’s how the headline writer at the Los Angeles Times puts it.
According to a new study from the University of Michigan, that mozzarella you relish, that cheddar that makes you shudder with delight is one of the top foods identified as addictive. Apparently there is an ingredient in cheese, casein, which when digested releases opiates called casomorphins. These react with dopamine receptors in the brain and before long you are hooked on Havarti.
Although I’ve never lived in Green Bay, I have been a cheesehead from the time I could peel the plastic wrapper off an individual slice of American cheese. I figure it’s my dad’s fault. He worked in the dairy industry, and he always was pushing cheese and other milk products on us kids. Growing up with cheese might also explain why I have always been a bit of a Francophile. When I first read Charles De Gaulle’s quote: “How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?” I knew France was one country I would definitely be visiting.
Pizza — which usually includes cheese — held the No. 1 spot on the addictive foods list. That wasn’t so surprising, especially after I learned the researchers, using the Yale Food Addiction Scale, conducted the survey on 500 students. College students and pizza? Well, of course students are addicted to pizza. It is the primary food group when you are in school. After I read that, I couldn’t help but question the methodology of the research. I mean, a study asserting college students are addicted to pizza is like a study showing kindergarteners are hooked on candy.
To be fair, what the study really showed was that highly processed foods, such as pizza, or foods with added fat or carbohydrates “may be capable of addictive-like eating behaviors.” Actually, that seems kind of intuitive.
Chocolate was the second most addictive food on the list. Again, no real surprise there. Chocolate releases serotonin, which affects brain cells related to mood, appetite, social behavior and sexual desire. Chocolate gives us a happy feeling and, like all addictions, once that feeling is gone, we want it back. That’s when I reach for another square of Dove Dark Chocolate.
No. 3 three on the list was chips, which seems like a pretty broad group. I assume it includes not only your potato and your corn chips, but also those more modern versions like pita, pretzel, multigrain and veggie. I would think Cheetos — made with cheese, of course — would be part of the group, as well. These snacks address another kind of food addiction: the desire for salt. We crave salt because it is a basic taste perceived by our taste buds. It enhances and adds dimensions to other flavors we experience. Scientists say there is a physiological as well as psychological component to salt addiction.
Food addiction is a real thing. A 2010 study involving rats who were given unlimited access to junk foods not only gained weight, but continued to compulsively eat even when given a shock to the feet. Should we avoid these foods completely? I don’t think so. After all, chocolate has been shown to have health benefits, as have the other addictive foods. As is the case with so much in life, moderation is the key. Go ahead and order a piece of pizza now and then. And please make sure mine has cheese.