Dear Mom and Dad:
Throughout much of my childhood, I complained about you never buying or stocking the pantry with sugary foods. No Count Chocula, no Twinkies, no Oreos. Not even potato chips or Doritos. At the time, I thought you were exercising parental tyranny. Now…ahem, this is hard for me. Now, I have to say this: thank you.
Oreos are freakin’ delicious. Am I wrong? Whether you’re a weird-white-stuff-in-the-middle type of person or a chocolate cookie type (for the record, I’m the latter), they do make a perfect combination, and the commercials are spot-on when they suggest that Oreos are even more transcendent when dunked in milk. But here’s the thing — they’re addictive. And not just in the “once you pop, you can’t stop” way. I mean in an actual, neurological drug-like way.
You’ve undoubtedly heard and read about the potential dangers of foods high in fat, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc. Everyone from conscientious parents to New York City residents to the FDA has been inundated with information about how dangerous our obsession with bad food is, and Joseph Schroeder, a Connecticut College psychology professor and director of the behavioral neuroscience program, along with some of his students, decided to see just how addictive sugary foods are.
They started at a pretty logical place for studying addiction: drugs. They wanted to compare the pleasure associations between cocaine or morphine and Oreos in their subjects — in this case, rats. They set up two-sided maze — on one side, hungry rats could obtain Oreos, and on the other, the rats could obtain rice cakes. They compared the amount of time the rats spent on the Oreo side to the time they spent on the rice cake side. You can guess how this turned out — even rats think rice cakes are nasty.
They set up a similar two-sided maze in which rats were injected with cocaine or morphine on one side and injected with saline on the other. You can also guess how this turned out. Then they compared the amount of time the rats spent on the Oreo side of the maze to the amount of time they spent on the cocaine/morphine side of the maze — it was the same.
The research team then measured a protein that indicates the activation of neurons in the nucleus accumbens, otherwise known as the pleasure center of the brain. They were able to deduce how many cells were activated in this part of the brain in response to the Oreos compared to in response to the drugs. They learned that when the rats ate the cookies, more neurons in the brain’s pleasure center were activated than when the rats were exposed to cocaine or morphine. In short, the rats got seriously hooked on the Oreos.
Their research suggests that the brain reacts to high-fat and high-sugar foods much the same way as it reacts to drugs. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it — especially if you’ve ever felt powerless to resist the lure of something you know is bad for you. This has implications that are especially dangerous for people of lower socioeconomic status, where high-fat and high-sugar foods are advertised heavily, given their relatively low cost and easy accessibility. That is, if you didn’t grow up in my house. Though I have to say, I’m grateful my parents didn’t stock rice cakes either.
One interesting detail they observed is that rats eat Oreos like most humans do — they take apart the cookies and eat the middle first. Sadly, they didn’t provide the rats with glasses of milk.