In 2013 I took the time to collect some data about the spread of a story about Oreo cookies. According to it, scientists demonstrated that Oreo cookies are as much, or possibly more, addictive than cocaine. The story spread and faded very quickly, in a couple of days in October 2013, but was reported by hundreds of English language media outlets, including prominent ones such as the Huffington Post or the Guardian.
The story was based on a laboratory experiment with rats. Some of the rats were placed in a maze with Oreo cookies at one end, and a control substance – a rice cake – on the other end. Others were placed in an analogous maze but, this time, on one end they were given an injection of cocaine, and on the other end they were given an injection of a saline substance (the control, equivalent to the rice cake in the other maze). According to the official press release, the researchers found that rats in the two conditions were spending the same amount of time in the Oreo end and the cocaine end. Not only, the researchers also “used immunohistochemistry to measure the expression of a protein called c-Fos, a marker of neuronal activation, in the nucleus accumbens, or the brain’s ‘pleasure centre'” and found that “Oreos activated significantly more neurons than cocaine”.
The majority of subsequent articles that I collected are interchangeable. Media reported the study in a standard format, with various successful additions, such as the fact that rats were, as most of us, breaking the cookies in the middle and eating the cream first (my two years old daughter does the same, and I am quite sure she never saw us doing it, so this must be a trans-species universal behaviour carrying a deep meaning), or a comment of the senior researcher that, after having seen the results of the experiment, was sadly not able to enjoy eating Oreos any more. A minority of articles were more cautious. Besides the dubious extension of a result from rats to humans, the fact that rats were spending the same amount of time on the Oreo and on the cocaine end of the maze obviously does not say anything about the relationship between the two, but only that, in both cases, Oreo and cocaine were preferred to the alternatives.
Besides, it is sufficient to look to the official press release to discover that the “scientific study” is, in reality, a student’s project, not published, thus never gone through peer-review, and not even ever presented publicly. There is a reference to a future presentation to a “Society for Neuroscience conference”, but I am not able to find any information on it. Strangely, an actual scientific paper on the topic had appeared in a legitimate scientific journal (Addiction Biology) more than one year before, from unrelated authors in a different institution, and it is not mentioned in any media, including the critical ones. This study has all the same eye-catching features – Oreos, cocaine, rice cakes – but it concludes, more modestly, that “greater sensitivity to the motivational properties of palatable foods may be associated with individual differences in vulnerability to the reinforcing effects of cocaine”, that is, the individual rats that were more sensitive to the food rewards were also the ones more sensitive to the drug.
But wait, the story does not finish here. In 2005 the Chicago Tribune run a long report titled “Craving the cookie” in which Oreo cookies were used as a case study for exploring then-contemporary diet trends and health problems related to food consumption in the US and, in particular, the idea that some foodstuff, high in sugar or fat, could be considered addictive. The report mentions various experiments. In one, from the “late 1980s”, lab rats “poked the cookies, sniffed them, ate them to excess”, and, who would have guessed, “many even tore apart the two dark wafers and licked away the creamy filling”. In another, from “the 1990s”, was shown “that Oreos and other sweet snacks act on the same brain pleasure centers that respond to addictive drugs”.
This dynamic has several typical features of many Internet micro fads. Its diffusion timeline showed a rapid spreading, with all mentions appearing on the same day, or in the days immediately after, the Connecticut College press release. The few critical articles and blog posts followed in the next days, as a reaction to the first peak of popularity. Interestingly, periodical appearances of the same “discover” keep on popping out, with low frequency, including a 2017 article from Fox News, which, under the presumably catchy title “6 things you do not know about Oreos”, digs out the same old addiction narrative. In fact, the same successful event (the Connecticut College press release) was itself a reappearance of a story already circulating, but the never reached popularity.
In addition, the content of the story is culturally palatable (pun intended). It mixes a strong intuitive appeal (everybody like Oreos and we all know it is very difficult to stop when you have started, don’t we?) with a counterintuitive, but not-too-unexpected, feature (can be really like cocaine??). It appeals on a topic, such as food, and, in particular, overeating, which has both a day-to-day relevance for all of us, and it is commonly recognised as a contemporary, urgent, problem of the industrialised world. On top of this, the story is presented as “science”: researchers “discovered” or “proved” a surprising effect of Oreos, through “experiments”, and they even “used immunohistochemistry” (whatever this might be). Not many accounts reported the fact that there was not a proper peer-reviewed study, a piece of information probably not relevant for the majority of the intended readers.
P.s.: This post has been partly inspired by a one-year-old post from Helena Miton in the International Cognition and Culture Institute website. Ultimately, I am using elsewhere the “Oreo and cocaine” story to exemplify what it means to apply population thinking to culture.