Cheese addictions and the (lack) of science behind them

So a new study on food came out, surprised?

This time we’re led to believe that cheese is as addictive as crack and morphine.

Do you know anyone who has critically over-cheesed themselves? I don’t and I’m a Registered Dietitian. I feel like if this was happening on the reg, I’d probably hear about it by now.

So what you aren’t reading in the papers is the following:

Apparently, the study was conducted by asking 500 people questions from the YFAS (Yale Food Addiction Score) the ambiguous questions on the YFAS can be found here. The study concluded that they have preliminary evidence (from a questionnaire) that not all foods are equally addictive and that these foods that were thought to be highly addictive were highly processed and cheese.

So how does that mean cheese is as addictive as crack?

If eating casein containing cheese caused the same effect as taking morphine wouldn’t this be a relatively easy to study?

Who wouldn’t want to eat free cheese?

In short, it doesn’t prove a whole lot of anything, especially about ‘crack cheese’.

Dr. Barnards ‘crack cheese’ theory-

  1. We eat cheese.
  2. We break casein into peptides.
  3. We make beta-casomorphin (BCM’s).
  4. We have an opioid-like response from cheese.
  5. We get pleasure and become addicted.

Milk has casein in it, cheese has more concentrated amounts of casein because we need lots of milk to make a little cheese. We eat cheese and during digestion we form the protein casein into large peptides. Beta-casomorphin belongs to a group of opioid peptides and it is theorized that it is enzymatically released (in humans) from casein during digestion. It is hypothesized that it can then get to and be received by our opioid receptors in the gut. It is then further theorized that it acts with an opioid effect and can cause addiction.

Researchers tried to measure the addictive effects of casomorphins in rats, their conclusion was that the rats liked the real morphine, not the casomorphin. Yes, I know humans trials are much better than animal trials but we haven’t gotten there yet and this is helpful for us to form a basis for theory.

A study published in July 2015 states that processing such as fermentation and heat may play a role in whether the casomorphins can even form and how difficult it is to confidently identify and accurately quantify BCMs. A few of the conditions (the release of BCM7 during hydrolysis of b-casein depends on the b-casein variant containing a histidine residue at position 67) that may be necessary for casomorphins to be released can be seen here and here.

A 2014 paper looking into casein and whey protein in human health states “Since their absorption in the gut has not been reported to date, it is generally accepted that physiological influences are restricted to the gastrointestinal tract where they may modulate gastrointestinal function, intestinal transit, amino-acid uptake and water balance. As soon as peptides enter the bloodstream, they are believed to be quickly hydrolysed.”

Want more? Casomorphins have a seven amino acid peptide sequence. Very little is known about the mechanisms of transfer of intact peptides longer than 3 amino acids across the intestinal barrier (where some of our opioid receptors are). We don’t even know if it can happen or not. A detailed paper from the European Food Safety Authority touches on BCMs in great detail. The document concluded that “at a molecular level, in comparison to medicinal and endogenous opioids, bovine BCM7 does not seem to be a very potent opioid ligand.”

One ‘crack cheese’ article claims the following “The average person is estimated to eat 35 pounds of cheese/year- suggesting that it really as addictive as research claims.”
Where are these estimates coming from? From Here and the ERS estimates per capita food and nutrient supplies is based on food disappearance data. These data are used as a proxy to estimate human consumption.

Do they include food waste? Nope. Are they accurate? Probably not.

In 2010 the US Dept. of Agriculture estimated the average American apparently eats 23 lbs of cheese per year.

You should now ask yourself, how does an estimation of how much cheese we eat by weight validify that cheese is as addictive as crack?

Somewhere around 23 POUNDS of cheese per person per year?! A pound has 16 ounces, and in Canada, 1.5 ounces of cheese is a serving. So if the average person eats 23 lbs of cheese a year it means the average person is having about 245 servings of cheese per year. That’s a piece of cheese every day and a half and don’t forget that isn’t including the cheese you threw out because it got moldy.

23 lbs of cheese doesn’t sound as crazy now, does it? That number certainly doesn’t make me jump to the conclusion that if we eat 23 lbs of cheese in a year we are addicted to it. After hours of reading research that doesn’t point to opioid effects of casomorphins, I found equally as many websites and ‘articles‘ citing Dr. Neal Barnard and his cheese addiction theory.

If the “morphin” part of “casomorphins” reminds you of morphine, you’ve got one heck of an eye for letter similarity. Dr. Barnard says, “These protein fragments can attach to the opiate receptors in your brain. As the name implies, casomorphins are casein-derived morphine-like compounds.” 

Research, however, says something a little different. Conclusive causal effects of casomorphins on humans is still yet to be.

In a 40-minute youtube video, Dr. Barnard compares breastfeeding to drugging infants (at 12:50) also compares constipation from dairy to constipation from opiates and says that cheese is one of the most fattening foods. Nutrition experts like dietitians will say something different. Usually, along the lines of ‘single foods aren’t fattening, excessive caloric intake or reduced energy expenditure are more likely to be a cause of increased weight than a single food’.

More on Dr. Neal Barnard– He claims to be able to reverse diabetes if you simply buy his book, become a vegetarian and stop your consumption of all vegetable oils! (Seems like an oversimplification of a complex disease and a very strict diet) Not that it really matters but he also is the ex-president of PETA and at 18:00 in his video he says that broccoli is 8% fat by calories (it’s not).

Endnote– I’m not saying I have all the answers. I’m just saying there is no need for mass hysteria over cheese. We should eat cheese in moderation if we like it. I also think we need to start using the word moderation in moderation.

Self-control is important with food but in order to understand an appropriate relationship with food we must get healthy messages to the public without promoting FEAR! We need more healthy messaging, less weight-shaming, less fear-mongering and fewer studies on crack cheese and more studies that are double blinded with placebos that’ll prove things we need to know!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. cameronlbc15 says:

    Fantastic post!! This is a clear example of information overload in our society. Yes we should be studying how different foods affect our bodies and minds, but we have to be very careful with our information. The public can disproportionately blow things like say “crack cheese” up to scare us into eating products that are heavily processed or entirely unnatural…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’ve got a handful of posts pike this planned for the near future. 🙂


  2. Aprylle says:

    This though. Thank you for really examining the research! We claim an evidence-based practice, but it really sucks when we even have to trudge through that evidence on a daily basis because there’s so much bullcrap out there.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have not previously read any of this theory.

    I do know that cheese is high in tyramine and for sensitive people this can be quite a problem (hypertension, migraines etc). The number of people with a tyramine sensitivity is unknown as it is not something that is routinely screened for by medical practitioners (or dietitians for that matter). Does he mention anything about this?

    On another note, I query why you say Barnard is incorrect about the percentage of calories from fat in broccoli. My google search gives me 100g broccoli having 0.4 g fat (14.80 KJ), 6.6 g carbohydrates (105.60 KJ), 2.8 g protein (47.60 KJ). That makes fat kilojoules (calories) as providing 8.8%, which is near enough to his 8%.

    Thanks for this post. There is a lot of good information and links here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Emma Train says:

      Elizabeth, I somehow missed this until now. I used the Canada Nutrient File for my data and after reading you comment I did some digging on the data used and Canada lists Broccoli as 0.29gr fat/100gr with 0.02 standard error and USDA lists as 0.37gr fat/100gr with 0.004 standard error. So, thanks for pointing it out. I think USDA probably has better data than Canada for broccoli which makes me stand by Barnard’s point re: fat content of broccoli.


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