Lab rats have some coke and a smile
Mike Bertha at Philly.com claims in an article, “Study shows that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine,” that sugary foods are as addictive as cocaine.
One minute you’re reaching into the pantry for a late-night bite to eat and, the next thing you know, you’ve missed two days of work and cruised through an entire sleeve of Oreos. A recent scientific study shows that the reason your cookie-fueled Fourth Meal turns out to be such a fiasco is that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine.
Um, not quite. All the study proved was that lab rats liked eating Oreos and they liked indulging a drug habit.
They compared the results to a different test. In that on, rats on one side if the maze got an injection of saline while those on the other side got injections of cocaine or morphine.
Rats seems to like the cookies about as much as they liked the addictive drugs. When allowed to wander freely, they’d congregate on the Oreo side for about as much time as they would on the drug side.
Stoner hippies might like eating a bag of Doritos when they get the munchies from marijuana, but it doesn’t mean Doritos are as addictive as pot smoking. And let’s face it, if the choice is between eating an Oreo cookie and getting stuck with a needle, many of us would prefer the cookie.
Over at Reason.com, Jacob Sullum uncovered a political reason for the study (while putting their own drug legalization spin on it):
According to Schroeder, “some people can’t resist these foods.” It would be more accurate to say that some people don’t resist these foods, perhaps because they do not have exactly the same values, tastes, and preferences as Schroeder and Honohan. Instead of considering that possibility, Schroeder simply assumes that people who eat things “they know they are bad for them” cannot help themselves. His explanation for this unproven premise is that “high-fat/high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do.” But if the neurological effects of Oreos make them impossible to resist, how is it that most people manage to resist them, consuming them in moderation or not at all?
And who are the “some people” who can’t manage that feat? Honohan’s remarks cast light on that question. She is worried about people “with lower socioeconomic statuses.” They are the ones who are expected to behave like the rats in the study, which is why it may be necessary for the government to make the foods they like less accessible and less affordable, presumably through regulation and taxation. Schroeder and Honohan refrain from recommending such policies within the confines of the press release, but it is not hard to see where they are going with this.
So what exactly did the rats do? They favored the side of a maze where they were given Oreos to the same extent that they favored that side of the maze when they were given an injection of cocaine or morphine there. Furthermore, when the researchers “used immunohistochemistry to measure the expression of a protein called c-Fos, a marker of neuronal activation, in the nucleus accumbens, or the brain’s ‘pleasure center,'” they found that “the Oreos activated significantly more neurons than cocaine or morphine.” Given the latter finding, perhaps we should credit Connecticut College’s publicity department with restraint for not announcing that Oreos are in fact more addictive than cocaine or heroin. Or to put it another way: Cocaine and heroin are less addictive than Oreos. Which makes you wonder why people go to prison for selling the drugs but not for selling the cookies, especially since Oreos and similar foods “may present even more of a danger.”
Sullum points out that the study does not even show that morphine, Oreo cookies or cocaine or addictive if there are other opportunities for stimuli. The basic flaw in these studies is that the choice to consume drugs or Oreos is that they are in isolation from alternatives, and even other members of their own species.
It would be easy to mock Schroeder and Honohan’s discovery that cookies are addictive, especially since they started out knowing that Oreos are “highly palatable to rats” and then concluded, based on the maze experiment and biochemical analysis, that Oreos are highly palatable to rats. But the study inadvertently highlights an important truth: Anything that provides pleasure (or relieves stress) can be the focus of an addiction, the strength of which depends not on the inherent power of the stimulus but on the individual’s relationship with it, which in turn depends on various factors, including his personality, circumstances, values, tastes, and preferences. As Peele and other critics of neurological reductionism have been pointing out for many years, the reality of addiction lies not in patterns of brain activity but in the lived experience of the addict. Locating addiction in the unmediated effect that certain stimuli have on “the brain’s pleasure center” cuts the addict out of the picture. His desires and choices do not matter, because he is under the control of irresistible impulses caused by exposure to stimuli too powerful for him to deal with on his own. And this is where the moral justification for forcible intervention, whether aimed at drug abuse or obesity, comes from: He cannot help himself, so we must help him, whether he likes it or not.
On the other hand, when they do the study on Snickers candy bars, old movies and Coca Cola, I’ll be happy to become a lab rat.