They had to go. Their cream filled indifference stared back at me as I decided their final seconds were nigh. The Oreos. They would all disappear into my face tonight. All I knew was that by the next day, I wanted to be released from their siren song. You might imagine that my reasoning is similar to that of a cocaine addict, vowing to dispose of the last of their stash to aid going clean the next day.

Yet I can assure you, I am not addicted to Oreos.

You may have been concerned about your beloved cookie after reading articles that poured forth from the internet in 2013 making bold claims about Oreo addictiveness. Even though research suggests that sugary foods like the Oreo have negative health consequences, rest assured, there is little evidence to support sensationalist headlines like “Rats find Oreos as addictive as cocaine”.
Despite attractive claims that Oreos are just as addictive as cocaine, studies that inspired these misleading headlines only looked at whether Oreos were rewarding to rats.

If you dig deeper into the science behind the story, you would see a very different picture. Connecticut College researchers who first released the “evidence” of Oreo addiction were studying rats’ reactions to Oreos. In particular, they were looking at a rat behavioral task called “conditioned place preference”, where rats are trained to have a preference for a particular place. Patrons who frequent a restaurant with appetizing food or great service might understand that when you’ve had a good experience with a place, you tend to go back.

Just as you might prefer spending time at your favorite restaurant, when rats experience something they like in a particular place, they like to go back there. This behavioral task trains rats to connect an experience of something neutral to one place and something rewarding to another. When you test them to see which place they prefer, where they spend their time tells you something about what rats like. Yet spending time in a place where something good happened isn’t an indication that you are addicted to it. It just means that you liked what happened there previously compared to other options.

In the study, Connecticut College researchers gave rats Oreos in one place and rice cakes, a bland food, in another. After doing this several times, they let the rats pick which of the two places they wanted to spend more time in. As you might guess, the rats preferred the location where they were given Oreos over the place where they got rice cakes. The same sort of test can be performed using drugs instead of food. Cocaine, you can imagine, is very rewarding and rats prefer to hang out where they have previously gotten cocaine.

In two separate tests, one using Oreos versus rice cakes and one using cocaine versus saline, rats spent the same amount of time in the Oreo associated place as the cocaine associated place. This was the basis of the news touting the dangers of eating Oreos. Yet, while Oreos and cocaine were preferred within their respective studies, researchers never directly measured how much rats favored cocaine in comparison to Oreos. More importantly, this type of test can’t measure addiction – only what rats like. Liking something isn’t the same as being addicted to it. Many more tests are needed to conclude that something is addictive. It’s also worth noting that this research was never published and so was not peer reviewed by experts. It may well turn out that Oreos or other snacks are addictive, but this hypothesis hasn’t been properly tested yet.

Reactions to this study by the public and media highlight some critical vulnerabilities in translating scientific findings to everyday life. While some media outlets expressed caution, they were overshadowed by the plethora of reports that fed into the hype. We’re talking TIME, CBS, and the Washington Post. Reporting on science is challenging. As a reporter, you want the latest breaking news and science just doesn’t accommodate that timeline. Rigorous research takes time and therefore definitive conclusions do not come quickly. Moreover, scientific theories often change in light of new information, as they very well should.

Once news about scientific findings reaches the public, it’s not reasonable to expect everyone to drop what they are doing and fact-check. Who has time to do that with all of the information they are bombarded with throughout the day? Researchers are also under tremendous pressure by funding agencies and their own institutions to show something meaningful quickly. Reporters and journalists are under pressure to produce sensational, eye-grabbing news quickly. As for the rest of us, we’re just trying to get through life while relying on the media to give us what we need to know, quickly. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for passing bad science on to the public…quickly.

To fix it, we need to look at all levels of this process. Scientists need an environment where they can take the time to be the meticulous, detail-oriented truth seekers we need them to be. Journalists need to be able to dig deep into a story and not feel pressured to compromise accuracy in favor of a grabbing headline. Lastly, people need to be scientifically literate enough to know how the scientific process works and how to spot bad science or science reporting.

I know I’m not an Oreo addicted fiend. However, this case of sensationalist science reporting might lead Oreo-lovers to believe otherwise without the ability critically digest and identify flaws in the study.  In order to prevent future misleading headlines and the resulting confusion, there needs to be a change not only in the way that scientific findings are reported, but also in how people are educated about scientific research. Ideally, reports should be accurate and everyone should be able to understand the process and conclusions of a study; only then will our lives benefit most from scientific research. [Luckily this case of the news being overhyped sensationalist science worked in my favor. Let’s make it all work in our favor.]  

For a video explanation of this topic, please check out Christina’s YouTube video here.

Peer edited by Tamara Vital

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