Food And Drug Comparisons: Valid Or Tacky?

"That cake is like crack!" It's a phrase – or a variation of a phrase – that the majority of us have heard or said before. Comparing food to drugs is not a new concept, but is this claim grounded in any sort of truth? Or is it downright ludicrous – not to mention, pretty tasteless? Two recent articles examined the issue, with differing conclusions. (Our own Associate Editor Jess Kapadia even added her own take last month).

Back in August, Slate unleashed a critique of those who casually throw around drug terms when describing food. The publication cites the direct marketing of items named after narcotics ("crack pie" at Momofuku Milk Bar, for example) and an increase in the media's willingness to embrace these comparisons (The New York Times and Yelp are mentioned). The story then states the somewhat obvious: while foods may be detrimental to health and induce cravings, they are not illegal, they do not produce a euphoric high and they do not induce a bevy of potentially serious health conditions within a few days of consumption. The article goes on to categorize those who do use these comparisons as "ignorant...indifferent to the misery of poverty in America," concluding that the "foodies who swoon over a 'crack cookie'...never consider that crack abuse is a devastating problem for some people, because they never have to." It's certainly a stimulating argument.

Meanwhile, scientific studies appear to suggest at least some validity in these comparisons. TODAY recently surfaced research from Connecticut College that found Oreos activate more neurons in the brain "pleasure centers" of lab rats than drugs such as cocaine. Rats chose Oreos over rice cakes at the same rates that they chose an injection of cocaine over a saline injection, leading researchers to conclude that foods high in fat and sugar and drugs of abuse trigger brain addictive processes to the same degree. Sure, the study – and other similar ones – was conducted on rats, but it's a pretty compelling finding.

There are a lot of factors in play here, the first being that those describing their dessert as "crack" are (most often) just using hyperbole to exaggerate a degree of enjoyment. They don't feel the need to back up their statements with hard facts, nor should they have to at this level. But, is this mere comparison "insulting" and "ignorant"? And will any amount of research negate such a claim?

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