A couple of people have asked me why I didn’t write about the Oreos-can-be-as-addictive-as-cocaine study that made headlines around the world earlier this week.
Well, I had three good reasons — ones I hope all Second Opinion readers will also consider when trying to evaluate the merits and limitations of any health-related study touted in the media:
1. The study hasn’t been published. Its details haven’t even been released to the public, except in a press release.
Because it’s unpublished, the study has yet to undergo peer review — a process designed to identify problems in a study’s methodology or statistical analysis that might render its findings problematic or irrelevant. All too often, unpublished studies presented at medical conferences (as this one will be next month) never find their way into a professional journal, and usually for a good reason (Peer review has its own limitations, but in most cases it’s better than no review.)
Also, I don’t generally report on research findings unless I can read the full study — including the methodology section — myself. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.
A press release won’t do.
2. The study involved rats. Although rats (and mice) serve as important animal models for researchers, they’re not biological substitutes for humans. Time and again, research findings deemed extremely promising in rats do not pan out in humans.
One cancer researcher told me last year, not without significant frustration, that he could cure mice in his lab with a particular treatment approach, but not people.
“Over 90 percent of the stuff that works in mice,” he said, “doesn’t work in people.”
For this reason, although I read and follow what’s being done in animal research with great interest, I don’t normally report on it.
3. The findings are kind of meaningless.
This study reported that eating Oreo cookies appeared to activate more neurons in the rats’ nucleus accumben, the brain’s “pleasure center,” than exposure to cocaine. But what exactly does that mean, if anything?
“Even among drugs, cocaine has a unique chemical profile and social context that are the main things that determine its ‘addictiveness,’ ” he writes.
One could just as easily have concluded from the Oreo-study findings, Bell adds, that cocaine is less addictive than Oreo cookies.
Yet claims continue to be made that a particular food or behavior (or just about anything having to do with computers) is “as addictive as cocaine” on the grounds that it triggers a spurt of neural activity in the nucleus accumben.
Here’s Bell’s compilation, which he posted last year on his blog MindHacks, of a few of the other addictive-as-cocaine-items that have been reported recently in the popular press: World of Warcraft, power, nicotine, junk food, high-fructose corn syrup, ice cream, cannabis, love, gambling, fatty foods, porn, Facebook, sugar, cupcakes, running.
There are many reasons you may want to avoid eating Oreo cookies, especially the fact that they contain both sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
But should you avoid them because they may become addictive?
Nah. But if you have a pet rat, I’d keep the cookies away from its cage.