If you talk to anyone who has recently switched, or is considering a switch, to a plant-based diet, more often than not, they claim that cheese is their weakness. So why is this? After all, doesn’t cheese smell like dirty socks?
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. Yup. 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, so who will actually have to experience the uncomfy withdrawl? You guessed it. Those who try to kick dairy to the curb.
Casein is a hot topic for vegans and plant-based eaters because it can be found deceptively listed in the ingredients of certain dairy-free and vegan cheeses. You may be familiar with it in that regard, but the addicting qualities of Casein are somewhat unknown. 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. Dr. Neal Barnard, founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), explains that, “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. Like it or not, 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.”
The European Food Safety Agency, in response to a number of studies and public health concern, did a scientific literature review in 2009 to assess the potential health impact of casomorphins and similar biologically active peptides . Much of the review centers addressing the overarching question (although several avenues were explored in detail): Do casomorphins have potentially deleterious health effects? The concern of course stemming from the addictive capacity of opioid drugs.
The jury on that specific question is still out and a lot of the research is conflicting. There is discussion as to whether or not enough of the casomorphins cross the intestinal wall and get into the blood stream and ultimately cross the blood-brain barrier, etc. It discusses the data implicating this as a factor in Autism, etc.
While, I believe this is great information and I applaud the European Food Safety Agency for looking into it (note: our government has not), I think we are asking the wrong question!
I mean does it really matter “how addicting” it is and in what amounts does are able to get into the bloodstream, etc?
Common sense alone tells us that: We know with opioid drugs, different people react differently to them and different amounts affect people differently. I suspect it isn’t too much of a stretch to conclude that this is also the case for substances that produce an opioid effect. Further, it is generally accepted that binging on drugs on a daily basis is bad for us even in sufficiently small quantities, thus, again consuming highly concentrated forms of analogous substances probably isn’t the best plan either.
The question isn’t whether or not the casomorphins themselves have potentially deleterious health effects, the question is do dairy products on the whole have potentially deleterious health effects!
And that answer is a resounding YES.
The casomorphins only explain why we like cheese so much and why it is so hard to give it up. It’s the sugar (lactose), animal protein and the saturated fat content (which triggers IGF-1 in the body, and is the reason it is now being strongly linked to several cancers) that make it so bad for you.
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Are you, or have you, experienced withdrawal symptoms
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For more info, check out these related articles:
Why Cheese is Like “Dairy Crack”: Because It’s Got Morphine In It [Food] (gizmodo.com)
Breaking the dairy addiction (soulsearchingvegan.com)
Know the Signs of a Milk Allergy (everydayhealth.com)
1. Kurek M, Przybilla B, Hermann K, Ring J (1992). “A naturally occurring opioid peptide from cow’s milk, beta-casomorphine-7, is a direct histamine releaser in man”. Int Arch Allergy Immunol 97(2): 115–120. doi:10.1159/000063326. PMID 1374738.
2. Review of the potential health impact of β-casomorphins and related peptides European Food Safety Agency, Scientific Report (2009) 231, 1-107