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In the USA, junk food is cheap, and real food is expensive. Connecticut undergraduates conducted an experiment that indicates that Oreos are more addictive than cocaine. Here's what you can do about your own junk food addictions.

In the United States, and in an increasing number of countries around the world, poor people tend to be fat and wealthier people tend to be thin. In the US, high-fructose corn syrup, fortified white flour, and soybean oil are considered essential commodities so the government ensures they are available and cheap -- but no government agency ensures that poor people have a steady supply of yogurt with live cultures, chicken breast, or arugula.

As a result, Americans are almost (but not quite) the fattest people in the world.

The Americans who are most likely to be overweight are those who get their $1 Slurpees, $2 hot dogs and chips, and $3 giant bags of chips at convenience stores.

Even worse, a group of undergraduate students at Connecticut College have found, cheap fast foods like Oreos are addictive.

“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,” Connecticut college neuroscience major and study designer Jamie Honohan was quoted by CNN.

The Experiment

Honohan and collaborators constructed a maze with two sides for lab rats to explore. When lab rats reached one side of the maze, they were rewarded with rice cakes. When lab rats reached the other side of the maze, they were rewarded with Oreos. The student researchers noted the amount of time the rats spent on each side of the maze.

The research team also repeated the experiment with different rewards, an injection of salt water when the lab rat reached one side of the maze, and an injection of cocaine or morphine when the rat reached the other. The researchers monitored that amount of time the rats spent seeking each reward. The undergraduate neurology team also gave the rats brain scans that measured the number of neurons in the brain's pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens, that were activated by eating Oreos.

The Results

The lab rats that had learned how to find Oreos spent the same amount of time on the cocaine/morphine side of the maze as those that settled for rice cakes. But when rats that had learned to eat Oreos were given cocaine, their brains "lit up" more than the brains of rats that had been conditioned to eat rice cakes. 

The researchers conclude that fat and sugar and salt (or chocolate cookies with a creme filling) not only have potent effects on the pleasure centers of the brain, they set up the consumer for addiction to some hard drugs, such as cocaine or heroin (which is functionally similar to morphine).

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Bellisle F, Dalix AM, Slama G. Non food-related environmental stimuli induce increased meal intake in healthy women: comparison of television viewing versus listening to a recorded story in laboratory settings. Appetite. 2004
  • 43: 175–180.
  • CNN. The Chart. Oreos as 'addictive' as cocaine in lab rat. 16 October 2013.
  • Provencher V, Polivy J, Herman CP. Perceived healthiness of food. If it's healthy, you can eat more! Appetite. 2008. 52: 340–344.study.
  • Photo courtesy of Michael Bentley by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/donhomer/9374936294/
  • Photo courtesy of mihoda by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/mihoda/303165301/

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