By: J. Justin Wilson
Newspaper: Boston Herald

Let’s face it: One of the best parts about the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is the endless opportunity to stuff your face along with family, friends and coworkers. But just in time to ruin the beginning of some good holiday cheer, America’s food police have an ominous warning: Our favorite munchies may be addictive like cocaine and other hard drugs.

Yale University academics have proposed a new “food addiction” scale for measuring if someone’s “hooked,” and activists are fingering sugary snacks and beverages as potential crack-like culprits. (They must interpret “sugar high” a bit too literally.)

Elsewhere, the animal rights group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine compares hot dogs and bacon to addictive cigarettes. And former Food and Drug Administration official David Kessler thinks that food companies engineer a seductive combination of sugar, salt and fat to get us hooked.

There are plenty of old wives’ tales about chemicals in food. Tryptophan in turkey, after all, is supposed to put us into a “food coma.” (It doesn’t actually do this. And turkey has less tryptophan than soybeans and cheddar cheese, according to the USDA.)

So is there any credibility to this new theory? In truth, these claims are just dopey.

The insidious “cookies-equal-cocaine” calls have come forth because a handful of studies have found that sugary foods trigger dopamine activity in the brain, which is a similar neurological pathway used by hard drugs like cocaine.

But here’s the rub: Lots of things affect the brain. Exercise affects dopamine receptors, according to research in Neuromolecular Medicine. Doing pleasurable things leads to increases in dopamine, whether it’s listening to your favorite music, playing games or having fun in the sack. But these increases aren’t predictive of behavior — and it’s hard to argue that you can get addicted to Beethoven or Radiohead.

There are also fundamental physiological differences that makes food and hard-drug comparisons ludicrous. Addicts going through drug withdrawal can experience vomiting, shakes, agitation and paranoia. Nobody, however, holds up a convenience store because of a “Twinkie fix.” There’s no such thing as cupcake-driven delirium tremens.

Blurring the line between food and hard drugs also risks sending the wrong message.

Addiction advocates see it primarily as food taking away our ability to control ourselves. But the facts don’t back this up. Obesity is not the result of a sudden “addiction,” but gradual overeating that builds up over time.

The “addiction” argument is appealing to activists because it removes personal responsibility from the obesity debate.

Additionally, addiction shifts the burden from individuals to food makers (“Big Food”), who will be the target of endless lawsuits from hungry trial lawyers. Anti-tobacco lawyers like John Banzhaf of George Washington University are leading pushers of “food addiction,” no doubt hoping to cash in.

Fundamentally, there’s nothing wrong with scrumptious snacks. Advances bring improvement in quality of life, and it’s hard to argue that we’re worse off because we have more (and tastier) choices.

A swath of groups, from bulge-battlers to animal rights activists to trial lawyers, sees food “addiction” as the key to furthering their agendas. But you can tell them to stuff it by eating what you want this holiday season — in moderation, of course.