Science & Technology

Why are We so Obsessed with Cheese?

By Christina Ossa

Volume 3 Issue 1

November 7, 2022

Why are We so Obsessed with Cheese?

Image provided by Christina Ossa

From pizza to calzones, cheese tacos, and cheeseburgers, our world seems to have an odd affinity for cheese. But why? This is partly due to our brains and how cheese triggers the same areas of the brain that drugs activate. Cheese is a very rich food, with its gooeyness and melting quality being some of its shining features. It’s the perfect ingredient to supplement almost any dish, providing a thickness that no other ingredient can combat. But apparently, our psychological reaction to cheese can also be to blame for humankind’s “cheese obsession.” 

A study by the University of Michigan revealed that ingesting cheese has similar effects on the brain to ingesting drugs, which is not as concerning as it seems. Cheese contains a chemical called casein (a chemical commonly found in dairy products like milk, butter, etc.) which activates parts of the brain that recognize proteins known as receptors. These parts of the brain that cheese activates are known as opioid receptors. Now, you may be familiar with opioids - as they are a type of drug/painkiller - but don’t worry, as cheese is (obviously) not an opioid.  

While it may contain casein, which causes the brain to react similarly to how it would to a drug, the chemical doesn’t have remotely the same effects addictive drugs do (like opioids) on the brain. Think of it like a coffee addiction; yes, it may be harmful to the body nutritionally, but it doesn’t extremely harm people or derail their lives. Cheese is a perfectly normal guilty pleasure, and the casein contained in it is the reason behind this. Furthermore, while all dairy products contain casein, cheese has more than double the amount of casein than a dairy product like milk. Since cheese is derived from milk, which only has a small amount of casein, this “small amount” of the chemical builds up as more milk is used to make cheese (it usually takes 10 pounds of milk to make cheese). This is why you may feel more content while eating a slice of pizza than after drinking a glass of milk.  

Even if enjoying cheese is normal, the addictive quality of the cheese is one of the more common causes of addictive eating behavior, especially for mainly highly processed cheese such as American Cheese (or “plastic cheese”). Processed Cheese Products, or PCPS, contain calcium phosphate Para casein (more common in cheeses like Cheddar or Gouda), which causes a significant addiction to cheese.  

The next time you feel like you may be eating cheese too frequently, just remember to eat it in moderation. But if you choose a less processed cheese or simply want cheese every few weeks, feel free to indulge. Just because cheese may be a bit addictive and tasty, this just means that your brain enjoys it. Healthy eating practices are crucial to a healthy life, but a cheese pasta dish every so often or cheese in moderation creates a healthy balance between mental health and diet.