Cheese, ‘as addictive as crack cocaine’? Heavy users don’t need to worry

‘Cheese is “as addictive” as heroin, say scientists’. ‘Cheese is like crack, according to research’. ‘Shock study reveals cheese is addictive like crack cocaine’. These are just a few of the headlines that have appeared in recent days thanks to comments from Dr Neal Barnard, founder and president of America’s Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Barnard happens to be a vegan and his organisation promotes the vegan diet. His claim that cheese acts on the brain like hard drugs is based on the fact that it contains casomorphins. ‘Casomorphins attach to the brain’s opiate receptors to cause a calming effect in much the same way heroin and morphine do’, says Barnard. ‘You might call it “dairy crack”.’ You might, and he certainly does. He’s been calling cheese ‘dairy crack’ for years.

It’s not entirely clear why Dr Barnard’s views have suddenly become newsworthy. It appears that a supportive study has recently been published by the US National Library of Medicine, but I have struggled to find any trace of it online and news reports have been suspiciously short on details. I have, however, found a study on rats which found that casomorphins have ‘very limited or no reinforcing properties similar to those of morphine’.

According to a dietitian quoted in the Sun, casomorphins ‘really play with the dopamine receptors and trigger that addictive element’. Casual references to dopamine should always get the alarm bells ringing. Pretty much everything we enjoy ‘plays with’ dopamine receptors in the brain. For good evolutionary reasons, food triggers the brain’s pleasure receptors and high-calorie food triggers them more than low-calorie food. That is their legitimate purpose. It is what they are there for. The fact that drugs also stimulate these receptors does not mean that food is like heroin, it means that heroin tricks the brain into thinking it is like food. This is one reason why heroin addicts tend to be skinny.

Claiming that pleasurable activities are comparable to crack cocaine on the basis that they stimulate the brain’s reward centres is a cheap trick that has been used to make ludicrous claims about everything from biscuits to sunshine over the years. The fact that the same reward centres are stimulated does not prove that they are ‘as addictive as heroin’ any more than the fact that the word casomorphin is derived from morphine proves that cheese is an effective painkiller.

Insofar as addictive properties can be measured at all, it is by observing withdrawal symptoms. These can be extreme-to-fatal for heavy users of drugs and alcohol, but trivial-to-non-existent for heavy users of cheddar (with the emphasis on non-existent). I like cheese as much as the next man, but I can’t imagine ever burgling somebody’s house to get money for a wedge of Edam. As for cheese being an opiate, try undergoing surgery with nothing but a slab of Wensleydale for pain relief and see how that goes.

Dr Barnard is upfront about his anti-cheese agenda. In an interview with Vegetarian Times in 2009, he urged people to ‘do what you do with any drug you’re hooked on, you get away from it. You don’t look at it, you don’t smell it, and you certainly don’t eat it.’ Campaigners against sugar, pasties, bananas, sex, sport or — most topically — meat could make the same silly claims about the brain’s reward centres being stimulated like ‘crack cocaine’. Never forget that they are supposed to be stimulated by these things. It is crack cocaine that hijacks them.

  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    I note you ignore the effect of gateway drug, crackers.

  • Heavy cheddar-user here, and lifelong, too. Vermont, Neal’s Yard, and the original hard stuff, from Cheddar Gorge. A kind of miracle wrought by humans and made possible by cows… who would have thought it?

    • ViolinSonaten b minor.

      Cheese is the most wonderful of foods but can be quite scandalous and undignified.
      Especially if its that little Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque that begs to be rubbed with a
      garlic clove and warmed in that oven until oozing and spread upon a warmed Boule.
      And the humble goat must also be praised for its divine salty creation that begs to be stuffed
      into a pepper and drizzled with olive oil.
      Although mustn’t forget that huge chunk of mature cheddar that’s in the fridge late at night
      that doesn’t anything to compliment it in the slightest or the Wensleydale with Ginger 😉

      • That’s it: you are catering my next big do!

        • ViolinSonaten b minor.

          Excellent ! you live somewhere exotic, so I’ll remember my sunhat, glasses and truffle oil
          ( never leave home without it) but will leave the Stinking Bishop Cheese and Snowdonia
          Bomber Cheese behind, as linking their names to flights seems somehow foreboding 😉

          • Heh heh. If you’ve got a favourite brie, bring it! : )

    • Sylvia Classic

      The Cheese Goddess approves.

  • Really cheesy.
    Just like the WHO.
    The would make a fine band in the loony bin.
    Too bad, “The lunatics have taken over the asylum” …

    • ViolinSonaten b minor.

      Cheese is the music of the taste buds. From Bavarian smoked cheese that I love to
      a little Gruyere and a Danish blue with a pear or two. Nothing sweaty and covered in a supermarket it must always be bought from a little deli.

    • Isabella J

      V good.

  • JohnM

    I think you might be wrong on this occasion, Chris.

    I watched a documentary concerning a fanatical cheese user, who was so driven by his cravings that he built a rocket in his basement to go to the moon and obtain more cheese. I say “he built” but in fact his assistant, a dog, did most of the work. On the moon, the pair found a coin operated cooker who dreamt of ski-ing. Clearly someone was high, and I’m blaming the Wensleydale.