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article imageControversial study says Oreos as addictive as heroin, cocaine

By Kelly Fetty     Nov 13, 2013 in Science
New London - Are Oreos as addictive as heroin or cocaine? A new study by a team of undergraduate researchers is creating controversy.
On October 15, a Connecticut College press release announced that a team of undergraduate researchers under the supervision of associate professor Joseph Schroeder had found Oreos are " just as addictive as cocaine – at least for lab rats."
The students, led by neuroscience major Jamie Honohan, placed rats in a two-sided maze. On one side, rats completing the maze were fed Oreos. On the other, they were given rice cakes. Then the researchers measured how much time the rats spent on the Oreo side of the maze versus the rice cake side.
The rats preferred the Oreo side.
Next, the student researchers repeated the experiment using different rewards: on one side of the maze the rats got a saline shot, while on the other they received injections of cocaine or morphine.
The rats preferred the cocaine/morphine side.
When the data from both mazes were combined, it showed rats choosing Oreos spent as much time on the Oreo side of the maze as rats choosing morphine or cocaine spent on the drug side of the maze.
“I haven't touched an Oreo since doing this experiment,” Schroeder quipped to WVIT correspondent Doug Greene.
The researchers also measured the expression of a protein called c-Fos in the "pleasure center" of the rat's brains.
“It basically tells us how many cells were turned on in a specific region of the brain in response to the drugs or Oreos,” Schroeder explained.
The team found Oreo consumption triggered "significantly more" neurons than cocaine or morphine.
“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.”
“We chose Oreos not only because they are America’s favorite cookie, and highly palatable to rats," said Honohan, "but also because products containing high amounts of fat and sugar are heavily marketed in communities with lower socioeconomic statuses.”
"Science by Press Release"
The press release triggered a media stampede. By October 18, Time, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and the Huffington Post had covered the study.
Bloomberg columnist Sally Satel worried the study "may someday be used in lawsuits against Big Food."
Researchers "are trying to build an empirical basis for the War on Fat," wrote Jacob Sullum in Forbes.
Addiction experts criticized the study's methodology.
Edythe London, an internationally recognized neuroimaging expert, told the Washington Post the study's results were “consistent with the fact that Oreos produce pleasure. But we knew that.”
“The study performed cannot determine whether Oreos are as addictive as cocaine,” she said. “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.”
Addiction expert Keith Humphreys pointed out the study had not yet been published or peer-reviewed.
"Putting out a sensational press release before experts in your field have had a chance to evaluate your scientific work is bad for science and bad for society," he wrote on Stanford University's Scope blog.
The Oreo news stories trivialized the seriousness of cocaine and heroin addiction, Humphreys wrote.
The Connecticut College press release called the results "preliminary and subject to further scientific review." Schroeder will present the findings at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, CA, this month.
More about oreos, Addiction, peerreview, Cocaine, Heroin
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