Addicted to cheese: the science behind the story

With more than 1833 different varieties worldwide, cheese is a global phenomenon that has enchanted us for thousands of years. So what is it that makes cheese so addictive?

Back in 2015 a study by the University of Michigan into the food cravings of 500 people suggested that there was a scientific explanation for as to why meals containing cheese are the most sought after.

By using the Yale Food Addiction Scale, researchers determined that casein, a chemical found in all dairy products, triggers the brain’s opioid receptors to induce feelings of euphoria.

The logic was that producing a pound of cheese requires around 10 pounds of milk, meaning there are more concentrated levels of casein in the solid dairy form where it is used to coagulate the milk fats and separate those from the liquids. 

Interestingly, casein contains protein fragments called casomorphins (or opioid peptides) and it is these which effect the receptors in brains and give us that sense of pleasure when we consume cheese. 

Yet to simplify a tale that has ‘titillated the taste buds of humanity’ the world over for almost 7,000 years is to do it a disservice. After all, cheese is a story of milk and microbes, with a supporting cast of several hundred bacteria, fungi and yeast.

But what is it that lies at the source of cheese’s flavour and why is it that when we’re all born with a natural aversion to the putrid smells emanated by the likes of Brevibacterium, that over time we begin to adore these intuitively unpleasant aromas’?

According to Dr Stuart Farrimond the answers can be found in the ‘voracious bacteria and fungi’ that break down the amino acids to produce chemicals such as putrescine, trimethylamine and ammonia. Over time, these then ripen and combine in different ways which give cheese many of the more appetising flavours we recognise today. 

Writing for Science Focushe notes that humans also find small traces of repulsive smells and flavours pleasant for reasons unknown, something he says points to a ‘touch of gastronomic masochism. 

However, he believes that it is fat that sits at the heart of what makes cheese almost irresistible.

“We crave this calorie-packed nutrient due to our evolutionary programming, as it will give us fuel to survive the next famine,” he adds. “Fat’s irresistible allure is partly due to fat-sensitive receptors on the tongue, which is why low-fat alternatives never quite have the same appeal.”