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Oreos as 'addictive' as cocaine in lab rat study
October 16th, 2013
12:21 PM ET

Oreos as 'addictive' as cocaine in lab rat study

Anyone who's ever eaten an Oreo knows how difficult it can be to eat just one.

Scientists have long suspected that our brains crave junk food in the same way they crave other pleasurable substances, such as illegal drugs. Previous studies in rodents and in humans have shown the same area of the brain that lights up on scans when people use drugs, also shows increased activity when study participants consume, or even look at, high fat, high sugar foods like ice cream or bacon.

Some scientists believe certain foods trigger the brain to signal for more, similar to the way addictive drugs prompt cravings; if we don't fulfill the brain's request, the body could produce a physical response (like caffeine headaches) similar to withdrawal symptoms.

New research from undergraduate students at Connecticut College adds to the growing evidence suggesting that food can be addictive. The students were interested in understanding how the availability of junk food in low-income areas has contributed to America's obesity epidemic.

“Even though we associate significant health hazards in taking drugs like cocaine and morphine, high-fat, high-sugar foods may present even more of a danger because of their accessibility and affordability,” study designer and neuroscience major Jamie Honohan said in a statement.

The study

The student researchers used a maze with two sides to test their theory. On one side of the maze, they gave the rats Oreos; on the other side, the rats got rice cakes. The rats were then allowed to choose which side of the maze they wanted to explore.

The researchers recorded the amount of time the rats spent on each side. They then compared the times to a similar experiment where the rats were given an injection of cocaine or morphine on one side of the maze and a shot of saline on the other.

The researchers also analyzed the Oreos' effect on the rats' brains by looking at the number of neurons in the nucleus accumbens - the brain's "pleasure center" - that were activated while eating.

The results

The lab rats conditioned with cookies spent just as much time on the "drug" side of the maze as the rats conditioned with cocaine or morphine, the researchers say. "This, by itself, is not surprising or novel," Schroeder told CNN in an e-mail. But researchers also found that the rats eating Oreos experienced more pleasure than the animals being injected with drugs, as measured by activation changes in the nucleus accumbens.

"Taken together, these finding support the hypothesis that consumption of high fat/sugar foods can lead to addictive behaviors and can activate the brain in a similar manner as drugs of abuse," Schroeder said. "This may, in part, help us to understand why individuals who have trouble controlling their food intake, especially when food options are limited to high fat/sugar options, are more susceptible to obesity."

Caveats

These results have not been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. And research in rats does not always translate to humans. It would be difficult to get approval to conduct the same experiment on humans as it would require giving illegal substances to study participants.

The results do also not show that the rats were addicted - in the traditional sense of the word - to the cookies; simply that the rats sought them out and found pleasure in eating them.

While Oreos were used in the study, the experiment was done to illustrate the effect any food high in sugar or fat could be having on your brain.

Takeaway

This study helps us understand why it's sometimes difficult to resist junk food even though we know it's bad for us, Schroeder said. It might be hard to give up your favorite cookies cold turkey, so follow the golden rule of nutrition:

Everything in moderation.

Your brain on food: Obesity, fasting and addiction


soundoff (169 Responses)
  1. PhysicsPolice

    Thanks you, Jacque Wilson, for doing this story justice! I've seen a lot of bad reporting on this topic. You mention that it hasn't been peer-reviewed, and put quotes around "addiction" where they belong.

    Check out my review of this latest science media fiasco:

    http://thephysicspolice.blogspot.com/2013/10/rats-oreos-and-drugs.html

    October 18, 2013 at 18:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. JW

    I swear I'm addicted to Costco mocha freezes

    October 18, 2013 at 18:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Dusty Johnson

    The difference is cocane don't give you cancer! Better to eat the organic Oreos.

    October 19, 2013 at 09:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Mike

    It should be expected that we crave foods dense with metabolic energy or, barring that, substances that trigger the sense that it is dense with metabolic energy. It's a basic survival mechanism. Without craving food, we wouldn't know to eat in the first place.

    October 19, 2013 at 09:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Patrick

    Same with coca-cola, McDonald, the fake Italian pizza, Burger-King etc, etc.....The "dog food" companies take advantage of the laziness of the American women – as they do not want to cook for themselves and their children – to turn them into addict to their "dog food". You do not have to be a rocket scientist to realize how "good" to your health is the American "cuisine". In my house w cook and we do not eat "dog food nor drink sugar overloaded drinks.... reason why we are healthy and not obese!!!!!

    October 21, 2013 at 12:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Daniel Roegiers

      Why would it be only American woman that are "lazy" and don't cook for their families, other family members cook meals too. I understand that some people eat more than their share of this food, but sometimes it's quick and easy get if you're in a rush. And beyond all that, why is it only Americans that are "lazy" and buy this food, lots do people from different countries do the same, maybe not as much, but they still do it.

      October 22, 2013 at 17:30 | Report abuse |
  6. Bree

    This is a bit off topic, but they really should have studied the addiction of self-harming along with this subject. It is quite an addiction for me and I cannot do just one. I have to do more. I hate to admit to it, but it is true. I have also found out that I have quite the addiction for Subway's Footlongs! I get one every Friday because I crave it all week! I also have a Mountain Dew Addiction. I have sadly gained weight from it, but lost that weight and more when I drank it less. I absolutely LOVE BACON AND ICE CREAM!!! I cannot live without it! I also obssess over chocolate! Mmmmm, chocolate! <3

    October 21, 2013 at 14:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • M

      Maybe you should walk on over to the lab and they can do a self-harm study on you. It is not worth sacrificing the lives of innocent animals for that cause. have some self control and stop being an arrogant human bean.

      October 22, 2013 at 01:32 | Report abuse |
  7. Mohib Kohi

    Who is "Schroeder"

    October 21, 2013 at 15:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. M

    Leave the poor rats alone! They should just do this study on humans. Oh wait, Oreos are not more addictive than cocaine. Congratulations on this wasteful study. If you're going to start caring about what rats prefer, they would prefer not being tested on in experiments. They are lifeforms just like you and I and it is sad that people don't recognize them as such. I hope that animal rights are next on the agenda after same-sex rights.

    October 22, 2013 at 01:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • lsadfj

      dude. calm yourself. Don't be a giant D to the dude that harms himself. I used to as well. Also, what your basically saying is "Animals that have absolutely no purpose are better than humans". Your the arrogant one. Jesus.

      January 12, 2014 at 18:46 | Report abuse |
  9. al

    SUGAR BOOGER!!!

    November 1, 2013 at 14:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Danny Diederich

    This is stupid. They used rats and rats will eat anything they can and thats probably the first food rats got to eat in months.

    December 2, 2013 at 22:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Rawr

    So....will I be better off in Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers?

    December 16, 2013 at 13:49 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.