Oreos earned the name “America’s Favorite Cookie” after selling over 500 billion cookies since the product was first introduced on March 6, 1912. According to research set to be presented at next month’s Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, Americans may not have a choice in liking the cream-filled cookie.
A research team out of Connecticut College that tested lab rats found that more neurons in the brain’s “pleasure center” were activated when Oreos were eaten. They also determined that lab rats, like humans, go for the cream-filled center before starting on the rest of the cookie. The study was headed by Professor Joseph Schroeder and conceived by Jamie Honohan, a student from the university’s Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy. Honohan wanted to determine how high rates of fat and sugar consumption in low-income areas have contributed to the growing obesity epidemic.
“My research interests stemmed from a curiosity for studying human behavior and our motivations when it comes to food,” said Honohan. “We chose Oreos not only because they are America’s favorite cookie, and highly palatable to rats, but also because products containing high amounts of fat and sugar are heavily marketed in communities with lower socioeconomic statuses.”
In the first part of the study, hungry lab rats were given either an Oreo or rice cake after completing a maze. Rice cakes were used as the control because “just like humans, rats don’t seem to get much pleasure out of eating them,” said Schroeder. After the rats completed the maze, they were placed back in to determine how long they would spend in the area where they received the cookie.
Rats participating in another maze test were rewarded with addictive substances, such as cocaine and morphine, or a shot of saline. Again, rats were placed back in the maze to see in what area they decided to spend the majority of their time. Results showed that rats spent as much time on the side with Oreos as they did with the addictive substances.
“Our research supports the theory that high-fat/ high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do,” Schroeder explained. “It may explain why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them.”
By examining neuronal activation in the brain’s nucleus accumbens, also known as the “pleasure center,” researchers found that rats conditioned with Oreos activated more neurons compared to rats that were conditioned with cocaine or morphine. The research team hopes their findings will help people realize the addictive potential of food high in fat and sugar.
“Even though we associate significant health hazards in taking drugs like cocaine and morphine, high-fat/high-sugar foods may present even more of a danger because of their accessibility and affordability,” Honohan added.