What's not to like about cheese? It's delicious and available everywhere. On any restaurant menu it comes in as an appetizer, entrée, and even dessert. (Cheesecake anyone?) But do we love cheese so much because it's actually addicting? Research suggests that eating cheese causes a release of opiates called casomorphins, which could be what keeps some of us coming back for more (and more, and more…) A naturally occurring opioid peptide from cow's milk, beta-casomorphine-7, is a direct histamine releaser in man. Kurek M., Przybilla B., Hermann K., et. al., Department of Dermatology, Ludwig-Maximilian-University, Munich, International Archives of Allergy Immunology. 1992;97(2):115-20..
The String Cheese Incident — The Need-to-Know
Photo by Nicole Fara Silver
In just 50 years, the average annual cheese consumption in America has increased an insane 287 percent. More than 50 percent of the cheese we eat also now comes in the form of commercially manufactured and prepared foods — in other words, we're not just eating straight up natural cheese anymore. (Cheesy pizza rolls and bagel bites, anyone?) The USDA recommends Americans over the age of nine consume three cups of dairy per day — equal to about one cup of shredded Cheddar cheese or two slices of Swiss cheese. (See what else counts as one cup.) Sounds like one slice of classic cheesy pizza might just tip the dairy scales, right? To put it into caloric perspective, that one full cup of shredded Cheddar cheese is equal to a whopping 455 cheesy calories.
Clearly we love our cheese, but studies suggests there may be a chemical reason some feel compelled to consume mass quantities of cheese and not, say, broccoli. Decades ago, researchers discovered an opiate-like compound in cow’s milk (which they assume is meant to keep calves coming back to their mothers for nutrition and bonding). More recent research suggests that digesting casein, a protein in milk, releases compounds called casomorphins into the stomach Effects of milk-derived bioactives: an overview. Shah N.P., School of Life Science and Technology, Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia, The British Journal of Nutrition. 2000 Nov;84 Suppl 1:S3-10.. Once absorbed, these casomorphins create the same type of response caused by opiate drugs (think pain relievers like Vicodin or OxyContin) A naturally occurring opioid peptide from cow's milk, beta-casomorphine-7, is a direct histamine releaser in man. Kurek M., Przybilla B., Hermann K., et. al., Department of Dermatology, Ludwig-Maximilian-University, Munich, International Archives of Allergy Immunology. 1992;97(2):115-20.. And enough constant ingestion of these euphoria-inducing casomorphins can lead to dependence and — you guessed it — even withdrawal symptoms when going cheese-less cold turkey. (Finally — a legitimate excuse for those late-night mac and cheese binges!)
Hold the Cheese, Please — Your Action Plan
Wait just a minute before heading to Cheese Lovers Anonymous — not everyone's ready to call that craving for an extra-cheese pizza an addiction. One study indicated that ingesting milk products with casomorphins is not enough to cause addiction (and we’re talking just cow’s milk here — goat cheese lovers can rejoice without fear of addiction!) An assessment of the addiction potential of the opioid associated with milk. Reid L.D., Hubbell C.L., Department of Psychology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, Journal of Dairy Science. 1994 Mar;77(3):672-5.. But it takes 10 pounds of milk to make just one pound of cheese, meaning there's much higher concentration of casein (and casomorphins) — not to mention fat — in cheese. This higher concentration also makes it much easier to develop an addiction to the opiate-like compounds.
The jury is still out on whether everyone who ingests cheese gets the same level of euphoric feelings (or any at all). The European Food Safety Agency’s study of literature surrounding casomorphins in cow’s milk indicated the amount of casomorphins our intestinal walls absorb can vary greatly depending on factors like stress levels and diet. But cheese isn’t necessarily unhealthy because of these absorbed casomorphins — it’s the high calorie, sodium, and possibly even sugar (lactose) content that make some cheese binges not so acceptable.
Since it’s clearly not easy to quit halfway through a grilled cheese sandwich, try making those cheesy choices lighter by choosing part-skim options. (Part-skim Mozzarella contains 71 calories per ounce, compared to 84 per ounce in the whole-milk version!) Vegan cheese is another alternative, made from plant-based like soy protein and solidified vegetable oil. (Yum… we think?) But the amount of processing it goes through may just make it not even worth it. The key to getting that cheesy fix in any situation all comes back to moderation. Feel free to add a little sprinkle to the top of that pasta — just try not to get that whole daily dose of dairy with one dish.
The casomorphins in cow's milk cheese can create euphoric feelings for some (and even keep you coming back for more), but research can't exclusively say that cheese can actually be addictive in the same way as opiate drugs.