A small new study suggests the brain responds to Oreo cookies quite like it responds to actual drugs – at least if you’re a rat. The “pleasure center” of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, apparently gets just as activated in response to Oreos as it does to cocaine and morphine, which could actually have some major public health implications. While the study was done in rats, the authors say it’s likely relevant to humans as well, and could explain why people have such a hard time resisting eating an entire sleeve of the cookies. The study, which will be presented at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference next month, also made another discovery: Rats, like humans, like to eat Oreo’s creamy center first.
To test how the animals responded to Oreos vs. drugs, the team trained rats to navigate a maze. On one side, Oreo cookies were provided, and on the other side plain rice cakes were offered. As you’d guess, the rats were significantly more likely to spend time on the Oreo side of the maze. The team also compared these results to rats who were trained with morphine or cocaine rather than Oreos. They found that regardless of what “substance” the rats were offered (Oreos, cocaine, or morphine) they spent about the same amount of time on the “drug” side of the maze.
These behavioral data aren’t so surprising, but the researchers also reported some interesting neurological results. When rats were given Oreos, a protein called c-Fos was expressed strongly in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is well known to be active in pleasure and addiction.
“It basically tells us how many cells were turned on in a specific region of the brain in response to the drugs or Oreos,” said Connecticut College professor Joseph Schroeder, who led the research. Oreos actually activated cells in this brain area more than did either cocaine or morphine, which suggests that that magical combination of sugar and fat may be even more delectable to our brains than drugs.
“Our research supports the theory that high-fat/high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do,” Schroeder said. “It may explain why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them.”
The research may therefore bear some relevance to human public health issues – namely the fact that high-calorie foods are often low-priced and highly addictive. And the fallout from poor eating behaviors can be as dramatic as that from drugs, said the authors. “Even though we associate significant health hazards in taking drugs like cocaine and morphine, high-fat/high-sugar foods may present even more of a danger because of their accessibility and affordability,” said another author on the study, Jamie Honohan. “We chose Oreos not only because they are America’s favorite cookie, and highly palatable to rats, but also because products containing high amounts of fat and sugar are heavily marketed in communities with lower socioeconomic statuses.”
There’s been a heated debate about whether food addiction works in fundamentally similar ways to more “classical” addictions. Some studies have suggested some deleterious effects of sugar, and raised concerns about the effects of certain varieties of sugar and sweeteners on the brain, while others aren’t so sure. (For an interesting take, see here.) At any rate, the combination of sugar and fat seems to be particularly hard for people to resist. Certainly making healthy food available at lower costs – and marketing them in the right ways – is an ongoing issue in the “Big Food” industry, and one that’s only just beginning to change in the smallest ways.
A final oddity of the current study: the rats apparently preferred the creamy vanilla filling to the cookie itself. Said Honohan, “They would break it open and eat the middle first.” Though this isn’t likely enough to confirm that the results are applicable to humans, it does make one wonder if we’re really not so different after all.