Hooked: Are Oreos as addictive as crack cocaine?

people enjoying a beautiful day at the beach with blue cloudy skies and blue waterwith
Ready for some beach reading?
There is still time to update your summer book list. I recommend Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions by Michael Moss. It is an easy read, well written and flows from one thought to another.
To some of us equating the dangers of Oreos and crack cocaine seems ridiculous. To Moss it is self-evident. The book is a follow-up to his bestseller Salt, Sugar, Fat. He proclaims that “food, in some ways can be even more addictive than alcohol, cigarettes and drugs.” he confesses that in the previous book he wasn’t ready to call out processed food as addictive. Interesting, as its subtitle was How the Food Giants Hooked Us. In that book he uses the terms ‘addict’ and ‘addiction’ more than twenty times. In Hooked he really means it. Regardless of our view on food addiction, he is a gifted writer and dogged researcher. The Sunday morning after the NY Times quoted a colleague, Moss was on his doorstep ready to interview him. He seeks out researchers from across a topic’s spectrum.
Hooked starts out by redefining addiction. It is “a repetitive behavior that some people find it difficult to quit.” That makes me a reading addict and a sports addict! Ask my wife! Redefining a term to meet one’s needs is a neat trick if the original definition doesn’t quite suit. Researchers at Yale have developed a food addiction scale. The scale is an essential tool in food-addiction research. Others studying the psychology of eating are skeptical (1). Does it trivialize drug addictions? In my mind it does. I may be wrong. I polled students in a graduate food-science course I taught. To my dismay, a majority of them agreed that an Oreo was more addictive than crack cocaine. I suspect everyone in the class had eaten at least one Oreo. I don’t think any of them was a crack-cocaine user.
I devoted a chapter in my book, In Defense of Processed Food, to food addiction. When researching that book, I concluded that people were not addicted to food. There was much stronger evidence in my mind for an eating addiction. Hooked mentions the possibility of an eating addiction, but it sticks to a food addiction. Evidence for addictions include changes in brain scans and speed of signals to the brain. The book bemoans the ready availability of marketing signals that trigger addictive responses. Early chapters speed through a theory of food addiction with limited analysis. One drawback encountered is that food addiction doesn’t have withdrawal symptoms. Not to worry! The book states that withdrawal is no longer a feature of the addiction experience.
Moss is very good at exposing us to a rapid-fire litany of facts and figures. He creates extensive daisy chains that link one relationship to another to another. At one junction I counted up sixteen concepts linked together. He starts with “What goes into our long-term storage as permanent recall . . .” It ends up at “When our behavior gets repetitive, this pair [sugar and fat] is the hardest to quit.” They converge into a convincing story with each link flowing into the next one. He connects the dots, but is each dot valid? Probability becomes a problem. If each link is 90% accurate, the probability of the chain is 0.18 or much lower than chance. Even at 95% for each link, the probability becomes 0.44, still lower than chance. It looks good when we read it real fast, but does it make sense?
Hooked delves into the addictive nature of sugar plus fat. In the book only processed foods are addictive foods. It ignores the possible addictive nature of mama’s home-made brownies. Addictive cues lead to weight gain which ends up in obesity. It all goes back to all the chemicals added to food. Pumpkin spice, for example, involves “the deployment of as many as eighty elements.” Does Moss means eighty chemical compounds here? The culprits include cyclotenes, lactones, sulfurol, and pyrazines. He fails to mention that these molecules are also components of Real Foods.
Moss ignores the chemical complexity of fruits and vegetables. For example, almost 600 chemical compounds make up the aroma of fresh mango varieties (2). These chemicals include terpenoids, ketones, lactones, and cycloalkanes. Haven’t we gone far enough in using chemical names to scare consumers away from processed foods? Everything we put into our mouths is chemical. If we take away all the chemicals in food, we have a vacuum. Even the oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon-dioxide in the air are chemicals.
One term not found in Hooked is chemically dependent. Cocaine is a chemical, an alkaloid.
Other alkaloids of note are caffeine, nicotine, and morphine. Cocaine’s chemical name is benzoylmethylecgonine. Crack cocaine comes in the freebase form as a rock crystal. Powdered cocaine is the hydrochloride salt. Short-term effects of cocaine include hypersensitivity, irritability, and paranoia. Long-term consequences are respiratory distress, extreme bowel decay, scarring, and collapsed veins.
package of Fudge Covered Oreo Bites
As addictive as cocaine?

Oreos contain high oleic canola or palm oil, high fructose corn syrup, salt, soy lecithin, and vanillin. The addictive agent in Oreos is unknown. Short-term effects of eating too many Oreos are a sugar high, bloating, and stomach pain. Potential long-term consequences: addiction, weight gain, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.

Processed foods provide convenience and thus bypass evolutionary drives. It is these drives that served our ancestors well that do us in. Our guide Ardi, “a female who lived 4.4 million years ago,” was able to walk upright. This accomplishment led to perceiving aromas through her nose and in the back of her throat. Sensory scientists call this orthonasal and retronasal olfaction. Moss provides an excellent perspective on how Ardi perceived flavor. Ardi abandoned the earthy odors of the ground to perceive a wide range of tastes and aromas in nature’s bounty. We use the same talents to enjoy the pleasures of chocolate melting in our mouths. Aroma perception also helps us as we sniff swirling wine in a glass to capture its essence. The industry reels us in with flavors and sweeteners.
Food scientists working in food companies know how the consumer’s brain works and how to exploit it. The book traces the many forms of Oreos from double stuffed to minis. Companies integrate the experience. Cookie packages end up in our shopping carts and product into our waiting mouths when we get them home. Lawsuits are the only effective weapon against the hubris of Big Food.. The lawsuit strategy is slow but effective. It worked on smoking and drunk driving.
Hooked introduces the public to a more serious problem than many of us want to believe. Processed food is an inexpensive way to feed an addiction. Thus, it lurks below the radar. We joke about the power of an Oreo cookie or being chocoholics. Are we ready to commit ourselves to a 12-step program or therapy? Addiction is nothing to joke about. It is a mental illness. Moss brings the topic together in an easy-to-read format. The problems he describes are more descriptive of disordered eating than true addiction. Despite his diatribe against processed food, he delivers a serious but palatable message. Americans do have a problem with food. Is it a true addiction? Is it a series of eating disorders? Is it disordered eating? 
Moss doesn’t get food addiction quite right to my satisfaction. There are social science researchers who study this topic in depth. In the rest of this month I will describe their findings, the case they make, and my analysis of food addiction.
Next week: Processed food addiction—what the Science says
(1) Penzenstadler, L., C. Soares, L. Karila, and Y. Khazaal, 2019. Systematic review of food addiction as measured with the Yale food addiction scale: Implications for the food addiction construct. Current Neuropharmacology 17(6):526-538. https://pubmed.ncbi.nim.nih.gov/30406740/ 
(2) Singh, Z., R.K. Singh, V.A. Sane, and P. Nath, 2013. Mango—postharvest biology and technology. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 32:217-236. DOI 10.1080/07352689.2012.746699

9 thoughts on “Hooked: Are Oreos as addictive as crack cocaine?

  1. Book and review focus on substances, I add focus on us receptors. We all are surrounded with alcohol yet only a few become addicts. Reasons are both physiological and psychological, too much to get into here, but it relates to concepts of personal and cultural fertility and our differential readiness to want and accept certain beliefs and actions.

    It is fashionable to criticize corporations for their bigness and mission to maximize profits at our expense, but this ignores the difference between optimum vs maximum, public and private, ownership and management, the need and function of investment, the cost efficiencies of size, and the required balance of competition, regulation, variety and consumer money.

    It is also fashionable to be afraid of chemicals and to ignore amounts and probabilities, even though you (and I) tell them that we are all made of “chemicals.” The more chemicals the worse is common belief, scientifically meaningless but still very powerful. A story doesn’t have to be true to make its point.

    I have a short cartoon-based explanation of water chemistry, basic to all organic chem, but I find it resented and ignored by otherwise educated people who don’t want their misunderstandings disturbed. To learn more of WHY this reaction and the above fashions is my particular addiction now.


    1. Moss claims that a higher percentage of eaters become addicts than drinkers become alcoholics and drug users become addicts. Don’t know where he gets that data. We agree on the blaming of business or chemicals on the ills of society.

      One point on the substances and substance abuse is that it is not tied back to a specific chemical unlike cocaine, marijuana, morphine, or MDMA. I will discuss this in more detail next week and how addiction researchers justify calling processed food addiction a Substance Use Disorder.


      1. Re more eaters become addicts than drinkers, I don’t know where he gets data either but I can believe it because alcoholics and drug users change their social lives as well as the strong negative results (jobs, health, parental, spousal, need for money (esp drugs), social avoidance) compared to just being fat, and not all even get fat. Outside world doesn’t see diabetes etc.


      2. Food-addiction researchers claim that food addicts undergo the same strong negative results as alcoholics and drug addicts. They make a strong case, but there are many professional psychologists who don’t believe in food addiction. Stay tuned. They plot thickens.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s