Can we slay this nonsense once and for all? Cheese is not like crack.
No matter what you have read in even generally reputable publications, a study did not reveal that fermented dairy products are as addictive as drugs.
And I would never bother to say the obvious if the journalistic canard hadn’t just popped up again on Facebook, which provides endless opportunities to recycle old stuff, both deeply informative (ProPublica’s gripping police procedural about cops’ treatment of a serial rape case) and just plain wrong (the urban legend-busting site Snopes must be really busy since the advent of social media).
It’s not as though the Big Cheese Myth is destroying society. I doubt that parents have banned cheese from the house out of fear that their children will be stealing others’ toys to get their next baby Gouda fix.
But it’s a symbol of how science reporting is letting the public down when it comes to the many studies that purport to show us that one thing or another is good or bad for our health.
Usually, these studies are far from definitive and frequently, they’re not borne out by later studies. Remember how promising anti-inflammatory drugs looked for preventing Alzheimer’s disease, or the fuss made over the herbal supplement ginkgo biloba as a memory enhancer?
Both of those theories fell apart under the heat of years of randomized, gold-standard studies.
The original cheese study, published in the online journal PLOS ONE in February 2015, didn’t even examine actual eating patterns, which could be done by assigning people to eat a certain way, or at least by having them keep food diaries. It simply asked them to say which foods they found hard to stop eating.
The analysis was based on questions about limited numbers of foods that were posed to limited populations. But it was careful to put the phrases food addict or food addiction in quotes, or it referred to addictive-like behaviors. And in its findings, cheese wasn’t even singled out as a special culprit. Highly processed foods were, including pizza, as were highly fatty foods.
One website reported on the processed-food angle, but it also mentioned cheese, since that’s both high-fat and in pizza, a processed food. But the study was saying that pizza is processed to be high in fat and other ingredients that keep people wanting more. The website used the word addictive but also used such phrases as “may be” addictive and launched into an unfortunate side story about casein, a protein that can cause allergies, in cheese.
The story was then picked up on by others that brought up out of nowhere the notion that cheese was like crack cocaine, and that the study had singled out cheese as a problem food. They mixed the casein angle as though it were a vital ingredient, dropped the careful wording and misidentified where the original study was published, a mistake picked up in subsequent publications.
In other words, this was more like playing the childhood telephone game than real reporting. And things went viral from there. The public grows increasingly misinformed – and increasingly leery of science at the same time.
And don’t even get me started on how often journalists and the public mistake something that is correlated with a result with actually causing it.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.