The unpublished study, led by Joseph Schroeder, professor of psychology at Connecticut College in the US, stated consuming Oreos stimulated the same areas of the brain as drugs such as morphine or cocaine. This was then picked up in international press articles.
However, Professor John Blundell, chair of psychobiology at the University of Leeds, told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “In my opinion this type of study on rats indicates the dire state of scientific thinking in certain parts of the American research establishment.
“The allusions to human behaviour from this study on rodents show an absence of training in research methods and a sad lack of logical analysis. I can't think of anything more to add.”
Earlier this month, Blundell chaired a conference in London organised by the British Nutrition Foundation entitled ‘Food addiction – what is the evidence?’
Blundell argued that while a small proportion of the population could be regarded as food addicts, the term was overused and its use was often based on confused thinking.
“As a term, food addiction is confusing and sometimes contradictory,” said Blundell. “The evidence for the concept comes from a combination of experimental data, anecdotal observations, scientific claims, personal opinions, deductions and beliefs.
“It is a simplification of a very complex set of behaviours and is now being connected with obesity, with the suggestion that it is a clinical explanation for the epidemic.”
The Connecticut College study, which was designed to assess the potential addictiveness of high fat, high sugar foods, involved placing rats in a maze. At one end of the maze were Oreos and at the other end were rice cakes. The rats were attracted far more to the Oreos.
Injection of cocaine
An earlier study gave the rats an injection of cocaine or morphine on one side of the maze and saline on the other. When the two groups of rats were compared, they were shown to have spent similar amounts of time at the drugs end as they did at the Oreos end.
In addition, the Oreos were found to have activated more neurons in the pleasure centres of their brain than cocaine and 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.”
The study results are awaiting peer review and Schroeder plans to present them next month at the Society of Neuroscience conference in San Diego, California.
In a statement issued in response to the research, Mondelēz said: “Our understanding is that the actual study has not yet been peer-reviewed nor published, or even presented in abstract form. As we have not seen it, nor had any contact with the professor or school where the research took place, we are not in a position to comment on research specifics and/or methodology.
“We would caution against interpreting any results as specific to Oreo cookies, since they appear to be used in this research as a proxy for a non-specific ‘sweet’ variable.
“While it may seem simple to bucket foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the reality is that foods are complex, and encouraging people to enjoy a balanced diet paired with physical activity is most important.”