Junk science says Oreos are like cocaine

I’d say you can’t make this stuff up, but the Food Nazis just love to make this stuff up. In a recent “study”, “scientists” found that Oreos were basically equivalent to cocaine in their effects on rats.

I’m oversimplifying a bit. There appear to have been at least two experiments involved here, one of which is so methodologically unsound it casts serious doubt on the rest of their data. Let’s start with the less idiotic bit first: They found that eating cookies and getting shots of cocaine activated the pleasure center in the rats’ brains (duh), though cookies activated more neurons there. That’s somewhat interesting as a result, and if they had stopped there and backed it up with a bit more information, that’d be something. Not that it’s terribly newsworthy that pleasurable things activate the pleasure center, but hey, it’s a result.

Water is wet. Science!

Here’s where the science gets downright junky. In another experiment, they trained two groups of rats in a maze. In one group, they trained some rats to run two sides of a maze: one side gave them an Oreo, the other a rice cake. In another group, they gave shots of cocaine and morphine on one side, and saline on the other. They let the conditioned rats roam free and measured how much time they spent on each side. Their finding was that rats preferred spending time on the drug/cookie side of the maze, and their preference level was equivalent between the two groups.

No freaking kidding. This is the same as saying people prefer to work at an otherwise identical job that pays them ten times as much. The choice between nice thing and unpleasant thing isn’t a gray area, and tells us diddly crap about how Oreos actually relate to drug injections. How much money did they blow on that?

Back onto their work with neurochemical activation, when they found out the cookies did more for the brain than cocaine (by using a specific protein to measure the activity, not anything like an fMRI), they leapt to a pretty wild conclusion: That this supports the idea that high-fat, high-sugar foods are addictive, and “that is a problem for the general public”.

Addictiveness is not controlled merely by how well our pleasure centers are activated. There are lots of factors involved, and when you get down to it you have to draw the line somewhere between things that are addictive, and things you decide you like and want to do again. Just because we prefer to do things we like over things we don’t doesn’t mean it’s an addiction. Just because we’re more likely to repeat an experience we enjoyed than one we didn’t doesn’t make it an addiction. There’s a great deal more to drug abuse than that.

I’ve never in my adult life been remotely tempted to eat an entire package of Double Stufs in one sitting. Not even when they get nice and soft. Not even the Berry Burst Ice Cream variety. I have a few and I’m done. I seldom buy them because it’s just me and my wife in the house and getting through the package before it goes bad actually gets to be a chore. This would indicate a highly different mechanism of action from cocaine, though admittedly I have no personal basis for comparison.

How long now have scientists been feeding rats junk food and finding they preferred it? What have they proven in the process? They keep trying to claim this is proof of addiction, but it’s not. The simple truth is we’re biochemically wired to prefer things that taste nice over things that don’t, and we’ll eat them if given the choice. The only difference between rats and people in this regard is that with higher-level reasoning we can decide when to say no, or when to make a better choice. I’m not saying that choice is usually easy, because that hardwiring is pretty strong, but it’s something we’re capable of.

Now imagine if these scientists had done something truly useful, like finding a way to influence the rats’ feeling of fullness so they’d voluntarily stop eating cookies. That would’ve been a pretty useful way to spend grant money, wouldn’t it?

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About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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2 Responses to Junk science says Oreos are like cocaine

  1. Joe says:

    What are your thoughts on this study?
    http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0000698

    In which rats chose saccharin *over* Cocaine?

    • Lummox JR says:

      I’m inclined to think looking solely at reward when comparing the impact of two things on the brain is missing the forest for the trees. Cocaine doubtless has other impacts on brain chemistry beyond just a sense of reward. The same goes for matters of preference, when validly studied. In this case, although the methodology sounds decent, you have to imagine those rats were bored; access to sweetened water was at least more interesting than continuing to sit there but feeling way better about it, so there were multiple reward factors in play. Also, reward and preference do not equal addiction, and rats do not equal people (outside of politics). A rat has very, very high biological incentives to eat all the sweets they can. Humans are capable of feeling and reacting to countervailing intellectual pressures that tell us to put down that fourth Oreo.

      We still have a bit of an apples-and-oranges thing going on here, and even that study (much better designed than the one I ripped apart) really comes across like it has an ax to grind. On the whole I think these sorts of questions elude good science, but they attract junk science like flies to crap. Honest science says there are too many variables in play to get an accurate result, and there’s too much chance of bias influencing the experimental setup and interpretation of the results. In short I don’t know if it’s possible to get scientifically valid conclusions out of research of this nature, but I do know it’s possible to get grant money and media attention out of it. Honestly this is a waste of resources. And that’s coming from someone who recognizes carbs aren’t the greatest thing for the human body, especially processed grains. (I eat them anyway, but I recognize it.) Studies like this are a waste of time and money because the problems they’re tackling are indomitbaly complex; they do nothing but give ammo to the Food Nazis, who will then cite Science as an authority when in fact little actual science was involved at all.

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