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Big Food About to Lose Its Biggest Defense: Food Really Is Addictive

By Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

This piece appeared in The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) on May 19, 2003, under the headline “Food Processors Lose Their Best Defense.”

With America’s weight escalating ever upward, and health advocates looking to the fast-food giants for redress, Big Food is in the headlines again, frantically scrambling to protect itself from what happened to Big Tobacco.

Ever since last year when a New York lawyer filed suit blaming McDonald’s for a customer’s obesity, diabetes, and related diseases, the industry has argued that such cases will lose because food, unlike tobacco, is not addictive. Customers who get suckered into high-fat meals have only themselves to blame, they claim.

In fact, Big Food’s big defense—that food isn’t addictive—is rapidly eroding as scientists find biochemical evidence that certain foods almost certainly are. Recently conducted, but previously unpublicized studies suggest that cheese, chocolate, sugar and meat all spark the release of opiate-like substances that trigger the brain’s pleasure center and seduce us into eating them again and again.

Cheese is an especially interesting case. In our own research studies at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, we’ve noticed that participants moving to a vegetarian diet have a harder time giving up cheese than almost any other food. In fact, cheese’s popularity may have less to do with its meltability and mouth-feel and more to do with its addictive qualities.

Several scientific teams have shown that the principal protein in cheese, casein, breaks apart during digestion to produce abundant amounts of morphine-like compounds called casomorphins. Biologically, these opiates appear to be responsible for part of the mother-infant bond that occurs during nursing.

Other research has shown that naloxone, an opiate-blocker used to treat morphine and heroin overdoses, reduces the desire for chocolate, sugar, cheese, and meat suggesting that their attraction does indeed come from druglike effects caused within the brain.

No wonder so many of us are willing to drive to the 7-Eleven in the middle of thenight, desperate for more chocolate or another frozen pizza. In fact, an April 2000 survey of 1,244 adults revealed that about one in four Americans wouldn’t give up meat for a week even if they were paid $1,000 to do it. Give up bananas for a week to earn a cool grand? No problem. Asparagus? Easily. But meat? No way, say a quarter of us.

And just as Big Tobacco intentionally manipulated the addictive qualities of its products, Big Food does the same. Chocolate manufacturers spend long hours nailing down the exact proportion of fat and sugar that makes their products maximally addicting. Farmers breed and feed cattle in such a way to “marble” fat through the muscle tissue, putting the most seductive possible sizzle in the steak. And cheese producers talk about their USDA-sponsored marketing program “triggering the cheese craving.”

In each case, enormous businesses lure in customers—including children—and, over the long run, encourage unhealthy behaviors for their own economic gain. Until now, the fast-food industry has rejected any similarity with tobacco. Yes, burgers and fried chicken have loads of fat and cholesterol. Yes, they contribute to obesity, heart attacks, diabetes, and some cases of cancer. And, yes, virtually all health authorities plead for moderation, or even avoiding these scourges completely.

But given the recent evidence on the addictive properties of certain foods, it looks like Ronald McDonald may have more in common with Joe Camel than anyone dares admit. It’s time to share the blame.

Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is the author of Breaking the Food Seduction, (St. Martin's Press, June 2003) and the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit health and research organization.


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