Is cheese actually addictive? Here’s the real science

“I just want to tell you,” the bearded, burly man behind the counter gently warned us, “you’re ordering a lot here.” My daughter and I were at a London restaurant tantalizingly named The Cheese Bar. We’d already signed off on some gouda cheese puffs, a five-cheese macaroni and cheese, and a baked brie with bacon jam, and we were just getting warmed up. We took his admonition as a challenge. There’s something about cheese that makes a person feel unstoppable. And so, so happy.

Over my two recent months in Europe, I drank beautiful wines and devoured breads that could make the angels sing. I ate Black Forest ham from the real Black Forest, and ate a salade lyonnaise in Lyon. But the truest leitmotif of my adventure was cheese. The oozy raclette in Zurich. The after-dinner camembert and chèvre in Paris. The pumpkin-colored mimolette served at breakfast in Lille. Regardless of the place or time of day, nowhere did I go that cheese was not a fundamental aspect of the rhythms of mealtime. And it didn’t take long for me to begin to not simply presume that I’d be consuming cheese regularly, but to actively crave it. You say it’s dinner time and I haven’t eaten tarte flambee yet today? Better fix that!

It’s not just that a well-made cheese tastes fabulous — it does a number on our brains as well. Cheese contains a high concentration of the protein casein. As the digestive system breaks down the casein, it forms peptides called casomorphins. And casomorphins are, in the words of a 2021 report in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “food-derived opioids.”

While a wedge of cheddar doesn’t have the same kick as the Percocet lurking in your medicine cabinet from that back surgery, casomorphins are nevertheless “captivating,” says Jennifer Silver, a dietician and dentist in Alberta. 

“They possess opioid-like properties, albeit with a far milder impact than opioids,” she explains. “When these substances bind to opioid receptors in our brain, they cause dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, to be released. Consequently, consuming cheese can evoke feelings of comfort and satisfaction, a phenomenon many cherish.”

It can also create a whole range of associations usually reserved for Schedule 1 drugs. Speaking to Vegetarian Times back in 2009, Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, declared that “Casomorphins attach to the brain’s opiate receptors to cause a calming effect in much the same way heroin and morphine do. In fact, since cheese is processed to express out all the liquid, it’s an incredibly concentrated source of casomorphins, you might call it dairy crack.”

It’s not just the casomorphins, though. “Cheese also contains an amino acid called phenylethylamine that can cause euphoric effects,” notes KamTalebi, CEO of The Butcher’s Tale restaurant in Minneapolis. 

Given all those feel-good elements, why then does cheese’s reputation sometimes feel more associated with early-era Danny Boyle movies than brunch at your mom’s? A 2015 study published in the Public Library of Science On listed the foods “associated with behavioral indicators of addictive-like eating” — not just for the casomorphins but for falling under the category of foods that offer “concentrated dose, rapid rate of absorption.” Pizza, cheeseburgers and plain old cheese all ranked highly. Furthermore, study co-author Erica Schulte noted at the time that “Fat seemed to be equally predictive of problematic eating for everyone, regardless of whether they experience symptoms of ‘food addiction.’”

The findings were greeted at the time with unrestrained “Just Say No” level hype. “Cheese really is crack,” announced the Los Angeles Times. “Study reveals cheese is as addictive as drugs.” The Independent, meanwhile, declared “Cheese triggers same part of brain as hard drugs, study finds.” Now, I’ve never tried crack, but I have eaten grilled cheese sandwiches, and they never once made me feel like a character in “Requiem for a Dream.” 

There’s a difference between things that you crave, things that trigger certain neurochemical responses and hard drugs. “There’s no scientific evidence that cheese is addictive or that it significantly affects the brain similar to drugs or alcohol,” a 2021 informational feature for Houston Methodist hospitals explained. “Food cravings aren’t the same as addictions. And they’re also not specific to cheese.”

Whether or not it’s literally crack cocaine (It’s not), cheese does evoke powerful feelings of pleasure in many of us. Yet cheese can also make a lot of us feel pretty gross too. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “About 68 percent of the world’s population has lactose malabsorption.

Why are we so drawn to something that can make our stomachs ache? Dr. Sumeet Kumar, Ph.D., geneticist and founder of GenesWellness says that an affinity for cheese may come naturally for us mammals.

“From an evolutionary standpoint, the human proclivity for cheese can be attributed to its nutrient-dense profile,” says Kumar. “Rich in essential proteins, fats, and minerals like calcium, as well as vitamins like A, D, and B12, cheese constitutes a caloric and nutritional bonanza.” He adds, “Alternatively, our penchant for cheese may have evolutionary roots in its psychoactive properties; the mood-enhancing effects of casomorphins could have conferred survival advantages under stressful or challenging conditions.”

While cheese in almost every form is beloved, there are certain incarnations that have a particularly enhanced effect. “Aged, hard cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan tend to contain elevated levels of casomorphins compared to their softer counterparts such as mozzarella and ricotta,” explains Kumar. “Consequently, the consumption of hard cheeses may exert a more potent mood-boosting effect.” And of course, oozy, gooey, and melted is cheese in its highest form.

“We love melted cheese because it alters the taste and texture in some interesting ways,” says KamTalebi, “but also, our bodies absorb hot, cooked food more readily. Your stomach says thank you for bringing the cheese up to temperature and cooking it so that you get more nutrients from it faster.” And, one imagines, the casomorphins.

They certainly did the job that evening in London, especially in that bubbling skillet of brie. It helped that I was sharing a meal with someone I love. But after working my way through a menu based almost entirely on cheese, I felt deeply at peace with the world. We’d ordered a lot. We’d ordered, as our cheese bartender observed, a lot. I could have eaten even more. 

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