Is Cheese Addictive? Only If You Eat It

CheeseThe definitive answer to the title question is an emphatic, "Maybe." Why?  It depends upon whom you ask.  It depends upon your definition of addicted.  It even depends on the type of cheese you're continuously munching on. 


This obscure question was brought to my attention by my daughter, who regularly sends me newsworthy links to topics she thinks I should cover on Shelf Life Advice. This time, she sent me a Discovery Channel online article by Alice Truong, who talks about casomorphins, which, as you might surmise from the last two syllables, are related to the addictive painkiller.  Here's what Truong says, "The primary protein in milk is casein. When the human body digests casein, it produces casomorphins, which have an opiate effect on humans.  Because cheese is denser than, for example, milk, the casein is more heavily concentrated, meaning that eating cheese produces a larger amount of casomorphins in the body compared to eating other dairy products." 


Being a skeptic, I Googled further and checked out the website Care2, where I found Jake Richardson delivering essentially the same message.  By the way, both writers mentioned that the tiny amount of morphine in cow's milk may serve a purpose; it may calm nursing calves and help them bond with their mother. 


I'm too wise to believe everything I read online, so I turned to the academic world for verification.  I promptly sent off an email and the Discovery Channel article to Dr. Clair Hicks, a food scientist who's an expert on cheese and a member of the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board. I fully expected a response that said the cheese addiction claim was nonsense. But here's what Hicks said:  "The article is okay, but there is really not enough research to show that cheese is so addictive (due to the casomorphins in it) that you can't live without it.  They are present, and they probably enhance the pleasant experience, but to say that they cause you to always want it is a bit of a stretch.  I think the Wikipedia summary on casomorphins is pretty balanced."


My next stop was, of course, Wikipedia.  That scholarly source backed up Hicks by explaining that casomorphins are protein fragments derived from the digestion of milk protein casein, and, the publication says, “The distinguishing characteristic of casomorphins is that they have an opioid effect."


Some websites actually suggest staying away from cheese because it's addicting as well as fattening.  Another recommendation advises satisfying your cheese urge with a dice-sized piece.  I don't think addiction works that way. Don't interpret this advice as a medical prescription, but I say if you're feeling blue, cheer up with the 3 C's: chocolate, coffee, and cheese. (Dr. Hicks says that chocolate is probably every bit as addictive as cheese because its ingredients may release serotonin, and we all know that coffee perks us up and makes us feel better. If you don't believe how cheery chocolate and coffee are, click here and also here.)


Back to the euphoria caused by cheese. I'm sure you're wondering if some cheeses might be more addicting than others. The answer is "Yes."  According to Dr. Hicks, soft cheeses have more casomorphins than other types, and American cheese and cottage cheese have less than hard cheeses. But don't panic if your kids eat macaroni and cheese and toasted cheese sandwiches 20 times a week.  Be comforted: at least now you know why. 


Addiction is an unhealthy form of affection, right?  Well, not always.  The New York Times recently (April 17, 2012) profiled a guy named Mike Geno, who, believe it or not, is a "cheese portraitist." He's actually making a career out of painting foods, many of them sizable hunks of cheese.  Sometimes he has a hard time postponing the consumption of his subject until he finishes its portrait. Sometimes he decides the chunk of exotic cheese he’s painting is just too beautiful to eat.  (If you don't believe me, just ask Google and read the article yourself.)


Following all that exhausting online research, I put my computer to sleep and went into the kitchen. There sat my husband having his usual pre-dinner snack. He was slicing sizable strips of cheese off his treasured chunk of Swiss.  "You're hooked on that dwindling piece of casomorphins," I accused him.  He replied, "Nope. I just like the stuff."


After dinner, I returned to my computer and found the following email from my daughter, who shares her residence with a great Dane named Gryphon and a miniature  black poodle named Zorro:  "I recently bought the dogs these 'bones' that are essentially made of cheese.  They chew on them for hours if I let them.  When I try to take the "bones" away, I get growling and snapping from Zorro, and Gryphon searches all around to find out where I hid them." Hmmm. Could her dogs be addicted? Maybe not. Maybe they just like the stuff.


So is cheese addicting? Only if you take that first bite.  After that, more are inevitable.




Clair L. Hicks, Ph.D., University of Kentucky, Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences “Casomorphin" "Is Cheese Addictive?"


Care2 “Addicted to Cheese?  Here's why"


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