The topic of cheese being “dairy crack” has peaked my interest as this entire subject is a new one for me. One of my patients shared with the PA and me how fond of cheese she is and what life without it was like. She had been off it at her doctors’ instruction due to dairy and gluten sensitivity. Her mood dropped, she was no longer happy, but just dissatisfied – irritable even!  She was driven by emotional stress,  which motivated her to break ranks with her dietary restriction and be soothed by consuming cheese. I believe her choice was cheddar.

We were so curious about the cheese impact on her mood and personality that we got busy researching the cheesestopic and lo and behold, Cheese does resemble crack! But only in very specific ways. For example, its attachment to opiate receptors.

Where Does The Cheese-Equals-Crack Idea Come From?

Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of, Breaking the Food Seduction. The Cheese Trap: How Breaking a Surprising Addiction Will Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy, and Get Healthy, called cheese “an addiction.”

What would establish his assertion to be valid? Well, a recent study by the University of Michigan was published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, actually reads like a validation — scientific proof that food addiction does exist.  But does the study really confirm one’s need for a daily cheese fix?

The answer is casomorphins—protein fragments, derived from the digestion of the milk protein, Casein. The distinguishing characteristic of casomorphins is that they have an opioid effect. Correct. Opioids are among the world’s oldest known drugs. Dependence can develop with ongoing administration, leading to withdrawal syndromes with abrupt discontinuation. Opioids are well known for their ability to produce a feeling of euphoria, motivating some to recreationally use opioids. But if it’s already a huge part of our diets in America, who will actually have to experience the uncomfortable withdrawal? You guessed it. Those who try to kick dairy to the curb.

As Casein breaks down in the stomach producing the peptide, casomorphin (an opioid), it acts as a histamine releaser which is also why so many people are allergic to dairy products; An estimated 70% of the population worldwide!

Ok, back to the opioid effect. It takes 10lbs of milk to make 1 lb of cheese. As milk is turned into cheese, most of its water is removed leaving behind concentrated casein and fat. So, concentrated dairy products, like cheese, have especially high levels of opiates, even morphine.

At this point, you might be wondering what the evolutionary basis might be for these opiates to be in a mammal’s milk. “It appears that the opiates from mother’s milk produce a calming effect on the infant and, in fact, may be responsible for a good measure of the mother-infant bond.

No, it’s not all lullabies and cooing. Psychological bonds always have a physical underpinning. Actually, mother’s milk has a drug-like effect on the baby’s brain that ensures that the baby will bond with Mom and continue to nurse and get the nutrients all babies need. Like heroin or codeine, casomorphins slow intestinal movements and have a decided antidiarrheal effect. The opiate effect may be why adults often find that cheese can be constipating, just as opiate painkillers are.”

How Much Cheese is Good and Safe?

According to the National Institutes of Health Dairy Guidelines, your recommended daily cheese intake should be 1.5 ounces. To put things in perspective, there are about four to five ounces of cheese on an average 14-inch pizza. If you’re eating more than a couple of slices, you’re going over the recommended allotment. According to the study, it’s not your fault.

The study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, examines why certain foods are more addictive than others. Researchers identified addictive foods from about 500 people who completed the Yale Food Addiction Scale designed to measure if someone has a food addiction. Click Here to Take the Cheese Addicts Survey

‘If properties of some foods are associated with addictive eating for some people, this may impact nutrition guidelines, as well as public policy initiatives such as marketing these foods to children,’ Schulte said.

Nicole Avena, assistant professor of pharmacology and systems therapeutics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, and a co-author on the study, explained the significance of the findings. “This is a first step towards identifying specific foods, and properties of foods, which can trigger this addictive response,” she said.

Pizza, unsurprisingly, came out on top of the most addictive food list. Besides being a basic food group for kids, college students and adults, there’s a scientific reason we all love pizza, and it has to do with the cheese!

‘This could help change the way we approach obesity treatment. It may not be a simple matter of ‘cutting back’ on certain foods, but rather, adopting methods used to curtail smoking, drinking and drug use.’

According to the University of Illinois Extension Program, caseins makes up 80 per cent of the proteins in cow milk. And since cheese has a concentrated content of casomorphins, Barnard suggested it may be called dairy crack. 

The average person is estimated to eat around 35 pounds of cheese – suggesting that it’s really as addictive as research claims.

Route to Addiction

According to dietitian Cameron Wells, “Casomorphins really play with the dopamine receptors and trigger that addictive element.” Therefore, it’s more accurate to say “I’m hooked on casomorphins, the tiny, biologically active compounds produced when my body breaks down milk protein.”

When the body attempts to break down casein, the amino acids in the protein don’t completely separate, resulting in strings of amino acids. Casamorphins are the smaller strings of amino acids.

“Casomorphins attach to the brain’s opiate receptors to cause a calming effect in much the same way heroin and morphine do,” said Barnard.

So the decision to call cheese crack is entirely yours. And if some scientific studies make you feel better about eating a quesadilla for lunch and half a cheese board before dinner, so be it.

What Does The Pediatrician See?

Now let’s take a peek at a pediatrician’s abbreviated account of a child who was growing weakly or even presenting with failure to thrive, growing at a slow pace, and behaving fiercely at the drop of a hat (tantrums). There may be reflux and constipation, possibly medication dependent. Parents are weary and have been around the block: Specialists in GI disorders, developmental pediatrics, feeding therapy, and perhaps a neurologist or speech and language pathologist have all had their go’s at the child, but improvements if any, were meek, and dependent on pharmaceuticals or weekly therapies.

Perhaps the child just likes a lot of dairy food. Even in that case, you might be surprised at how differently your child behaves, grows, sleeps, or interacts, once that dairy protein (casein) is no longer a major feature in their day. (There’s absolutely nothing magical about dairy. Many other foods can deliver protein, better healthy fats and oils, and more minerals, including calcium.)

What’s Going On Here?

This mechanism is not an allergy (though allergy or sensitivity may be present at the same time – that’s a different reaction altogether). In this case, a chemistry has evolved in which your kid is literally addicted to milk. You can measure this with a urine test called urine polypeptide test, it screens for the protein fragments  (“peptides”) leftover when dairy protein (casein) is poorly digested. It also screens for same from wheat protein (gluten). If they’re in urine, they are circulating widely, and can also be in your child’s brain.

Why Is This Not A Good Idea?

Because these peptides mimic opiates – so much, that they are named after morphine: Casomorphin and gluteomorphin (also called gliadorphin) act like opiates in the brain. They bind the same receptors as drugs like morphine.. and yes, heroin. They are indeed potently addictive. Children who adamantly refuse foods other than just wheat, just dairy, or both may have this addiction active in their brains.

In Summary

Not only does this deny a child other more nutritious foods needed for their brains and bodies to grow and thrive, it can cause constipation (from opiate) and disrupt behavior, learning, social skills, and language development. The more diet-sourced opiate measured in urine, the less verbal and more developmentally delayed the child will be. In fact, clinical trials with naltrexone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction, have shown better behavior in children with autism and increased verbal ability.