Of all the potentially addicting foods, cheese may be the most complex. In research studies using vegan and vegetarian diets to control cholesterol or reduce body weight, most participants soon forget the lure of ice cream, sour cream, and even burgers and chicken. But for many people, the taste for cheese lingers on and on. Yes, 70 percent of its calories may come from waist-augmenting fat, and, ounce for ounce, it may harbor more cholesterol than a steak. But that cheese habit is tough to break.
Why is cheese so addicting? Certainly not because of its aroma, which is perilously close to old socks. The first hint of a biochemical explanation came in 1981, when scientists at Wellcome Research Laboratories in Research Triangle Park, N.C., found a substance in dairy products that looked remarkably like morphine. After a complex series of tests, they determined that, surprisingly enough, it actually was morphine. By a fluke of nature, the enzymes that produce opiates are not confined to poppies -- they also hide inside cows' livers. So traces of morphine can pass into the animal's bloodstream and end up in milk and milk products. The amounts are far too small to explain cheese's appeal. But nonetheless, the discovery led scientists on their search for opiate compounds in dairy products.
And they found them. Opiates hide inside casein, the main dairy protein. As casein molecules are digested, they break apart to release tiny opiate molecules, called casomorphins. One of these compounds has about one-tenth the opiate strength of morphine.The especially addicting power of cheese may be due to the fact that the process of cheese-making removes water, lactose and whey proteins so that casein is concentrated. Scientists are now trying to tease out whether these opiate molecules work strictly within the digestive tract or whether they pass into the bloodstream and reach the brain directly.
The cheese industry is miles ahead of them, having gone to great lengths to identify people who are most vulnerable to addiction. It dubs them "cheese cravers," and tracks their age, educational level and other demographics so as to target them with marketing strategies that are tough to ignore. With a $200 million annual research and marketing budget, the dairy industry is not content to have you just sprinkling a little mozzarella on your salad. It is looking for those Americans who will eat it straight out of the package, whatever the cost to their waistlines or cholesterol levels.
At a "Cheese Forum" held Dec. 5, 2000, Dick Cooper, the vice president of Cheese Marketing for Dairy Management Inc., laid out the industry's scheme for identifying potential addicts and keeping them hooked. In his slide presentation, which was released to our organization under the Freedom of Information Act, he asked the question, "What do we want our marketing program to do?" and then gave the answer: "Trigger the cheese craving." He described how, in a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the dairy industry launched Wendy's Cheddar Lover's Bacon Cheeseburger, which single-handedly pushed 2.25 million pounds of cheese during the promotion period. That works out to 380 tons of fat and 1.2 tons of pure cholesterol in the cheese alone. A similar promotion with Pizza Hut launched the "Ultimate Cheese Pizza," which added an entire pound of cheese to a single pizza and sold five million pounds of it during a six-week promotion in 2000. The presentation concluded with a cartoon of a playground slide with a large spider web woven to trap children as they reached the bottom. The caption had one spider saying to another, "If we pull this off, we'll eat like kings."