Over the last two days, several news outlets have been proclaiming that Oreos are more addictive than cocaine. The proof? An undergraduate student research project conducted at Connecticut College.
According to Connecticut College, student researchers put rats in a maze with two sides. On one side, the rats were rewarded for traversing the maze with delicious, sugary Oreos. On the other side, they got bland and boring rice cakes. The students then measured how long the rats spent on either side of the maze.
Unsurprisingly, the rats preferred the Oreos, because rats aren’t stupid.
The students then conducted the same experiment, except this time the reward at the end of one side of the maze was a shot of morphine or cocaine. On the other side, it was a shot of saline.
Again, rats preferred the drugs, because, again, rats aren’t stupid.
The results revealed that rats given the choice between Oreos and rice cakes spent as much time on the Oreo side of the maze as the rats given the choice between cocaine and saline did on the cocaine side. But this doesn’t mean that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine.
“The study performed cannot determine whether Oreos are as addictive as cocaine,” said Edythe London, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who uses brain imaging to study the neural basis of drug cravings. “That question is best addressed in a comparison of how hard a rat will work for Oreos versus cocaine — how many times a rat will press a lever to get one or the other.”
But if you’re in need of an attention-grabbing headline “Oreos Are as Addictive as Cocaine” is much more effective. Sorry, Nabisco.
What about the finding that Oreos “activated significantly more neurons than cocaine or morphine“? Well the mechanism of action of drugs vs. cocaine is so different, you can’t really compare the two. Food and drugs of abuse activate dopamine pathways differently, and just because something “activates more neurons” doesn’t mean it’s more addictive. The neurobiological regulation of feeding is much more complex than the regulation of drug abuse, since food consumption is controlled by many other factors besides the activation of reward pathways in the brain.
“We are biologically wired to respond to certain tastes, textures and colors, but that doesn’t mean it’s an addiction,” Gabriel Harris, an assistant professor of food science at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, told LiveScience in March.
The truth is, we just don’t know enough about the mechanisms of addiction to say that Oreos are addictive as cocaine, or that they are, in fact, addictive at all.
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