We all know people LOVE cheese, but is it more than taste? Is cheese truly physically addictive? What does the science say? We’ll look at both sides of the debate as to dairy’s addictiveness, namely, the issue of casomorphins.
One of the reasons I hear most often for not being able to go vegan, is cheese. I get comments like, “man, I want to go vegan, but I just can’t seem to stop eating cheese” or “I love cheese too much to ever go vegan.” Is this simply a lack of willpower or a petty taste preference? Or is cheese actually physically addictive? There’s been a lot of controversy over this matter and today I’m going to lead you through some of the research, theories, and viewpoints in the cheese addiction debate.
The main proponent today of the cheese addiction theory is Dr. Neal Barnard, the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an organization I’ve mentioned in several of my videos and used in my research many times.
In his article ,Breaking the Food Seduction, titled after the book of his it was announcing, Dr. Barnard states that “in PCRM’s research studies, when we take people off meat, dairy products, and other unhealthy fare, we often find that the desire for cheese, in particular, lingers on much more strongly than for other foods.” And asks the logical next question, “could cheese really be addictive?”
Dr. Barnard cites a 1981 study conducted at the welcome research laboratories in research Triangle Park, NC, in which they analyzed samples of cows milk and were amazed to find what looked like, and ended up actually being, morphine. In case you’re unaware, morphine is a highly addictive opiate.
Before we get into how opiates ended up in cow’s milk, lets take a little trip back to biology class to learn how opiates work within our body. Throughout our cells, we cave receptors that are shaped much like locks that can only receive certain keys, so to speak. and when these various keys are fitted into the receptor’s lock, the cell is affected in a specific manner. In the case of opiates, the key that fits into an opiate receptor is called an opiate agonist. It’s a chemical that, when bound with the opiate receptor, causes euphoria, a decrease in pain sensitivity, or analgesia, and can cause physical addiction.
So, back to our milk mystery. How is it that morphine found its way into milk? Well, first the researchers assumed that it must have come from the cow’s diet by eating poppies, the plant source of hospital morphine. However, they discovered that in fact cows produced it within their body, specifically the liver, where traces of morphine, along with codeine and other opiates, are apparently produced and can end up in their milk.
Upon further study, it was discovered that milk from any species, contains casein, a protein that breaks apart during digestion and releases a slew of opiates, referred to as casomorphins. Casein is and present in milk, with skim milk containing more, and is highly concentrated in cheese.
This is present in human breast milk as well and it’s posited that the purpose of our milk-made-morphine is to calm infants and may also be largely responsible for the mother-infant bond.
(Here we all thought it was our mother’s love when apparently, we were just strung out on boob juice.)
Now it’s still up for debate exactly how much of these opiates make it from our guts to our brain. I’ve linked to several studies on this matter in the bottom of this post.
Barnard states that until the 1990s, researchers believed that dairy opiates were too large to pass through the intestinal wall except in infants. But in a French study, Barnard referenced and a Polish study I found, there is evidence that these opiates make it to the brain even in adults.
Due to mounting concerns, the European Food Safety Authority even did a scientific literature review in 2009 to asses the potential health impact of casomorphins and similar biologically active peptides. So far, the jury is still out as a lot of the research is conflicting.
The United States…has not looked into this. In fact, the USDA in 2000 worked with fast-food chains to ensure dairy was prominent in menu items. Barnard cites that federally-sanctioned programs launched Wendy’s cheddar lover’s bacon cheeseburger, which single-handedly pushed 2.5 million pounds of cheese during the promotional period, and Pizza Hut’s ultimate cheese pizza–with an entire pound of cheese per pizza--selling five million pounds during a six week promotion, and helped subway promote cheese and make it a required ingredient on sandwiches.
(I’m sorry…I’m just…so proud to be an American right now.)
So, this would all lead us to easily conclude that cheese is physically addictive, right? I mean, it has opiates in it, for god’s sake. But there are some arguments against the addictiveness of cheese that have some weight to them.
The strongest I found was on a blog called The Vegan Option, which is also a radio show. In her post ,Is cheese really addictive?, writer Diana Fleishman, who has a PhD. in psychology, specializing in comparative and evolutionary psychology, she points out that in addition to releasing opiate agonists, dairy also releases antagonistic opiate peptides, which also bind to the opiate receptors and block the agonists from activating. Thus, these antagonists would have the opposite effect as the agonists and lead cheese to not be addictive.
Citing a Polish study from 2008, which analyzed the agonist and antagonist percentages present in several cheese varieties, Flieshman concludes: “ If these agonistic casomorphins are really important for causing an addiction to cheese we would see a big difference in the popularity of cheeses depending on the ratio of agonistic to antagonistic casomorphins.”
Her second objection to Barnard’s theory is that studies on the effect of casomorphins in formula-fed infants (several listed below) have shown the effects of casomorphins on their relatively much smaller body mass, to be negligible.
And her final objection is that dairy has not been shown to produce analgesia, the decreased sensitivity to pain that is one of the main effects of opiates like morphine.
Of course, Dr. Barnard states that “cheese holds other drug-like compounds as well. it contains an amphetamine-like chemical called phenylethylamine, or pea, which is also found in chocolate and sausage. And there are many hormones and other compounds in cheese and other dairy products whose functions are not yet understood.”
My personal takeaway from all of this is that the science is fascinating, and the debate is certainly interesting, but to me, it doesn’t matter.
What matters to me is that dairy is a product of extreme suffering and abuse. What matters is that mother cows are raped and their children are taken from them and sent to the veal industry so we can steal the milk intended for their babies. What matters is me is that dairy cows’ are destroyed by the demands of back-to-back pregnancies and constant milkings that their bodies give out and they are killed 20+ years before their natural life span.
Yes the health effects of dairy are horrendous, and the actions of the USDA cheese pushers deplorable, and the consumption of dairy may very well cause physical addiction–but the one thing it certainly causes, is suffering, abuse, and death. And to me, that is the reality of cheese and dairy.
The bright side of all of this is that you don’t have to give up cheese in order to not participate in cruelty and to improve your own health. Today there are a wide variety of vegan cheeses—ones that melt and everything. I’ll admit, in the early days, vegan cheese was…kinda like cardboard. But these days you van find every cheese variety, and if you’re not into the pre-packaged kinds, you can make your own! I have links to some recipes listed below.
I’d love to hear from you on this: What are your thoughts on the dairy addiction debate? If you’re vegan, was giving up cheese a challenge? If your not vegan, is cheese holding you back? Let me know in the comments!
— Emily Moran Barwick