Is Cheese Addictive?
Cheese is one of the most popular dairy products in the world.
In fact, it’s so scrumptious and easy to eat that many people believe it’s addictive. As such, you may wonder whether there’s any scientific evidence behind this claim.
This article explains whether cheese contains addictive compounds and what this means for your health.
This is your brain on cheese
Surveys show that Americans ate around 6 pounds (2.7 kg) of cheese per person annually during the mid-1970s, a number that has since grown to 11 pounds (5 kg) as of 2018 (1).
There are many reasons for this increase, such as changing social and economic factors. Cheese is often a centerpiece of social gatherings, and cheesemaking itself is now in vogue.
Yet, this ubiquitous food may also have mildly addictive properties that contribute to its popularity.
One reason that people enjoy cheese may involve casein, a slowly digested protein found in dairy products.
Casein and casomorphins in cheese
Casein comprises the majority of protein in dairy milk, and the concentration of casein in cheese is even higher, as it takes around 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of milk to make 1 pound (0.5 kg) of cheese.
When you digest casein, your body breaks it down into smaller compounds called casomorphins (2, 3).
Casomorphins can cross the blood-brain barrier and attach to dopamine receptors in your brain. This causes your brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to feelings of pleasure and reward (4, 5).
Casomorphins are thought to have an important evolutionary purpose in mammals by promoting the strong bond between mother and baby and ensuring that infants keep drinking their mother’s nutrient-rich milk (6).
Essentially, the more casomorphins your brain is exposed to, the more pleasure you experience. This may lead you to crave foods like cheese.
Interestingly, foods like probiotics, fava beans, soy, turkey, and legumes may likewise have addictive properties. That’s because they contain certain amino acids and other food compounds that also promote dopamine production (7, 8, 9).
Other potentially addictive properties of cheese
Interestingly, cheese’s high fat content may make it easy to crave.
Food cravings are triggered by the part of your brain that handles reward. The release of endorphins after eating can be particularly pleasurable, leading you to want more of the same experience (10).
Although these cravings are often thought to stem from your brain trying to replenish a specific nutrient, definitive research is lacking (11).
One study in 500 people found that heavily processed and high fat foods, including cheese, promoted more addictive eating behaviors than less processed, lower fat foods. Furthermore, these foods may directly affect pleasure receptors in your brain (12).
There may even be an evolutionary component at play, as high fat foods were likely a survival mechanism for prehistoric humans (13, 14).
This may explain why low fat, low calorie foods like fruits and vegetables are generally less likely to trigger cravings as frequently as processed, high fat ones.SUMMARY
Cheese contains casein, a dairy protein that releases casomorphins, which are plant compounds that trigger dopamine production in your brain. This makes cheese mildly addictive.
Should you avoid cheese?
While cheese may contain compounds with mildly addictive and pleasure-inducing properties, it doesn’t threaten your health.
Some test-tube studies even suggest that casomorphins have health benefits, such as anticancer and antioxidant properties — although more research is needed (15, 16).
What’s more, cheese is a good source of protein and calcium. Certain high fat types also contain conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may lower inflammation and promote heart health (17, 18).
Nonetheless, certain individuals may want to avoid this dairy product.
Most cheese harbors lactose, a milk sugar that some people cannot tolerate. Its saturated fat and salt contents may also cause problems for people who are sensitive to dietary fat or have high blood pressure, respectively (19, 20).
Current research doesn’t show whether certain types of cheese are more addictive than others. While those made with sheep or buffalo milks may produce more casomorphins due to their high casein concentrations, no studies support this.
Alternatives to dairy cheese
If you’re interested in reducing your cheese intake, nondairy cheese substitutes are one popular option that doesn’t contain casein.
These cheeses are safe for vegan diets and don’t have lactose.
Many cheese alternatives are made from nuts or plant-based thickeners like coconut. You can also try nutritional yeast, which many people use in soups, salads, and pastas.SUMMARY
There’s no reason to avoid cheese due to its content of casomorphins, as these mildly addictive compounds may also have health benefits.
The bottom line
Cheese may be mildly addictive due to its protein casein, which your body breaks down into casomorphins. These compounds attach to dopamine receptors in your brain, possibly triggering cravings for similar foods.
However, cheese is nothing like addictive drugs and isn’t dangerous in any way.
In fact, this ubiquitous dairy product is linked to numerous benefits due to its healthy fats, protein, and calcium.