So I’ll bet you heard the news. A professor and some of his students found that Oreos are “just as addictive as cocaine” in rats.
Why is this annoying? For one, it’s not particularly innovative … research like this has been done (and done better) years ago.
For another, it’s misleading. As Emily Deans pointed out yesterday on Twitter:
just because a substance hits the pleasure centers doesn’t mean ‘as addictive as cocaine.’
Or as Yoni Freedhoff pointed out on his blog this morning:
Putting aside any concerns with experimental methodologies, if our pleasures centres didn’t light up like Christmas trees when faced with sugars and fats then I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be over 7 billion of us walking the planet, because up until only about a millisecond or so in the grand scheme of time, those who were more driven to eat were the only ones who survived.
Understanding our brain’s reward system is important, but it’s also important not to overstate the case and, like some, conflate normal behavior with addiction.
Motherboard has a snarkier take on the study:
Here’s how the experiment, which has not been peer reviewed and has not been presented yet, went down. Mice were placed in a maze, with one end holding an Oreo and the other end holding a rice cake. The mice, without fail, decided to eat the Oreo over the rice cake, proving once and for all that mice like cookies better than tasteless discs with a styrofoamy texture.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing that food addiction doesn’t exist (though the jury is still out on that … see Motherboard for example). But I am suggesting that if we solely focus on what lights up the reward centers, we miss the bigger picture.
It’s not just about the substance. If a substance has the potential for addiction, that does not mean consumption equals addiction. Consider that just 20% of cocaine users “who use it during their lifetime will develop dependency.”
Oreos may in fact be problematic, but it’s not just because of what they do to the reward center in the brain. Oreos — and similar junk foods — are cheap, available 24/7, and are pushed at consumers non-stop.
Given that, we need to understand the environmental causes of addiction (or dependence), not just the physiological ones. Anyone who finds the Oreo study compelling should look at Bruce Alexander’s ‘rat park’ studies. Gary Tan recently summarized Alexander’s work:
It’s not the morphine, it’s the size of the cage … drug addiction is a situation that arises from poor socioeconomic conditions. From literally being a rat in a cage. If you’re a rat in a park, you’d rather hang out with your friends and explore the world around you.
a railroad and meatpacking town of several thousand whipped by a methamphetamine-laced panic whose origins lie outside the place itself … symptoms of a vaster social dementia caused by, among other things, the iron dominion of corporate agriculture and the slow melting of villages and families into the worldwide financial stew.
Hmmm. Perhaps another situation where the idea of “personal responsibility” obscures what’s really going on.
Back to the Oreo study … I suppose on the one hand there’s a bit of “so such thing as bad publicity” aspect to this. It gets people talking, and perhaps can lead to more (useful) research. But I’d love to see less sensationalistic coverage.
I can dream, can’t I?