The Oreo seems so innocent--two dark, chocolate wafers held together by a dab of sweet, white filling. It is an icon of Americana, a throwback to the days of cookies, milk and childhood.
Churned out in ovens the size of football fields, the Oreo reigns as the best-selling cookie in the world and a signature snack of Kraft Foods Inc.
In recent years, though, the treat has become a symbol of another sort. To some it is a nutritional time bomb, emblematic of the junk food fueling America's obesity crisis, particularly among children. It is the kind of sugary snack that research suggests can trigger the same brain impulses as addictive narcotics.
The Oreo, of course, is only one of the many indulgent treats that now make up nearly a quarter of the calories American children consume. It didn't create America's dangerously expanding waistline, nor did Kraft. M&Ms, Doritos, Coke--all play a role in this national gorge that threatens to undermine life expectancy.
"The rise of obesity in America is a complex story of many factors," said David S. Johnson, Kraft's North America chief, "including diet, exercise, lifestyles, social behavior and attitudes, community development, and government policy. It is decidedly not the story of any particular food product."
But the fact that Kraft, the nation's largest foodmaker, sees itself as a leader in addressing obesity makes the Oreo a fitting guide to explore the issue. The Northfield-based company wields enormous clout in the grocery aisles, and its marquee cookie has evolved into a commercial juggernaut.
The Oreo's primary ingredients--sugar, flour and fat--are at the center of current dietary debates. And the company's quandary is one most foodmakers face: How can Kraft serve shareholders and employees, ensuring that its more fattening brands thrive while still responding to consumer concerns that it is feeding the obesity epidemic?
Earlier this year, the company became the first among its industry peers to stop advertising its most indulgent fare to kids. "We want to be part of the solution in addressing this important public health issue," Johnson said.
The ferocity of the debate over the American diet, though, suggests the scrutiny of foodmakers won't diminish soon. Trial lawyers who won billions in settlements from tobacco companies believe they could do it again if they could prove foodmakers hid any addictive qualities of their foods.
Kraft said it does not conduct research "aimed at creating consumer dependency upon any of our products." At the same time, internal memos show the company has a history of sharing brain-research expertise with scientists from its corporate sibling, cigarette-maker Philip Morris.
Navigating these difficult issues is crucial to the future of Kraft. With hundreds of millions of dollars in profits at stake, the company is pitching an ever-increasing mix of Oreo products, from a lower-calorie version to one of Kraft's most fattening Oreos yet, a chocolate-covered spin-off.
The approach mirrors the contradictions buried in the national mind-set: Americans express worries about their health but still want to indulge their guilty pleasures.
Perhaps that is because the allure of junk food never changes.
"When we eat that pie at the end of a Thanksgiving meal, it has nothing to do with hunger," said Allen Levine, an obesity researcher at the University of Minnesota. "It has everything to do with the reward our brains get."
Chapter 2: The primal pull of sweets
Studies on Oreos and other snack foods suggest that the same brain chemicals that create the rush of narcotics also keep people coming back for sugary treats.
The controversy over the American diet in recent years has centered on how much obese consumers are stuffing into their mouths. But the root of our overeating lies not in our stomachs, but in our brains.
Moments after a person eats an Oreo or any other sweet, the brain's pleasure centers release opiatelike compounds--chemical cousins of morphine. The result bears similarities to addiction, though many researchers say it is more like turning on a built-in craving.
Such work supports the controversial notion that our eating habits stem from brute physiology as well as free choice.
"This is a very ancient motivation," said Ann Kelley, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. "Even bacteria will swim toward sugar."
That primal appeal of sugary, fatty foods has profoundly shaped the outsize American diet. Strip away the decades of marketing and ingredient tinkering, and all sweet snacks have a similar way of catering to our most primitive appetites.
Even lab rats had a ravenous taste for Oreos in a late 1980s experiment Levine ran at the University of Minnesota. They poked the cookies, sniffed them, ate them to excess. Many even tore apart the two dark wafers and licked away the creamy filling.
That was just what a human would do, thought Levine.
Around 1980, scientists began uncovering how rich, sweet tastes make the brain go wild.
Researchers in many laboratories found that giving rats morphine made them eat more fatty and sugary food. Later experiments would show that injecting opiates directly into one of the brain's main pleasure centers, the nucleus accumbens, prompted rats to eat up to six times as much sweetened lard as they normally would.
Reversing the binges was simple. Scientists gave the rats opiate-blocking drugs such as naloxone, used in people to counteract heroin overdoses.
Blocking the brain's ability to use opiates dulled the appeal of fat and sugar, while giving opiates magnified food's rewards.
That led to a startling conclusion: The same sort of opiates that create the high of drugs such as heroin also shape how the brain gets pleasure from food, especially those high in fat and sugar. Eating-related pleasure seemed to come from chemicals known as endogenous opioids, produced within the brain itself.
Putting rats on a fat binge was one thing. The challenge was to see whether sweet snacks had similar opiatelike effects in humans.
In the 1990s, Adam Drewnowski, now director of the University of Washington's nutritional science program, led a University of Michigan study showing that Oreos and other sweet snacks act on the same brain pleasure centers that respond to addictive drugs.
Drewnowski said he got the idea from a line in the 1986 Bob Hoskins' movie "Mona Lisa," in which a heroin junkie talks of craving ice cream. The notion that sweet taste could quench an addict's longing sounded right to Drewnowski's colleagues, Dean Krahn and Blake Gosnell, who had studied opiates in rat brains with Levine at Minnesota.
The pattern they had found in rats also applied to people. Bulimia patients in the 1995 study who were injected with opiate blockers ate less of the sugary foods they liked to binge on--including Oreos, Snickers, M&Ms and chocolate chip cookies, Drewnowski said.
Such work didn't show that snacks were addictive; the effect in Drewnowski's study was strong only for binge eaters. But it proved that the allure of such food goes beyond being tasty.
Other scientists found that blocking opiates in the brain changed even healthy people's basic perceptions of sugar.
"They said they could taste that it was sweet, but it wasn't quite as interesting," said Levine, who led some of the research.
In a brain-scan study last year, scientists found that the thought and sight of ice cream set off the same neurological pleasure centers in healthy subjects as the images of crack pipes did for drug addicts.
Food companies and many nutritionists note that such research doesn't negate the need for consumers to take responsibility for what they eat.
Oreo fans agree, saying they choose the cookie simply because it has a taste they can't find anywhere else.
"They're obviously not a health food, and they don't market themselves as such," said Ryan MacMichael, 29, an Internet specialist from northern Virginia who said he eats about four Oreos a day.
Yet MacMichael and other consumers compared the cookie's appeal to that of a drug. "It's some kind of rush that once you get a taste of it, it's hard to not eat it," he said.
Harder for some than for others. Just as many people can stop at one glass of wine and others become alcoholics, genetics and family dining habits make certain individuals more vulnerable to overeating, according to new research.
"I think what's going to be coming out is that food is like alcohol," said Marcia Pelchat, who studies food cravings at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "There are some people, who for genetic or environmental reasons, can't handle it very well. But the vast majority of people aren't like that."
Most biologists believe the tendency to put on fat in times of plenty helped humans thousands of years ago, when famine was a constant threat. Sweets were so rare and alluring that Australian aborigines would tie small leaves to bees and chase their flight to the honey-filled hive.
Now that overindulgence is easy, that biological heritage has become a millstone. Americans today have greater access to calorie-rich, intensely craved foods than any people in history, putting willpower to the test.
"There's an illusion that you have complete control over how much you weigh--in contrast to how tall you are, or what color your eyes are, or all the other things we have to accept," said Jeffrey Friedman, a researcher on the genetics of obesity at New York's Rockefeller University.
"The notion that there might be a biological system that evades our conscious control is not attractive to a lot of people."
Chapter 3: Kraft's taste for brain research
To understand food's effects, Kraft studies the brain. At times the company has shared expertise with nicotine researchers.
The implications of brain science are of great interest to food companies such as Kraft.
The company has turned to experts such as Princeton University psychologist Bart Hoebel, who said that about three years ago he presented to Kraft scientists his work suggesting that sugar can have addictive properties.
One of Kraft's top research executives, James Andrade, received his doctorate in neuroscience at Howard University studying obesity and how opiate-blocking drugs affect rats that overindulge.
In his 1986 dissertation, Andrade concluded that future research should seek to pinpoint "opiate receptors which might mediate the hunger drive."
At Kraft in the early 1990s, Andrade helped organize meetings between brain scientists at the food company and their peers studying nicotine at a corporate sibling, Philip Morris.
Documents made public through litigation against the tobacco industry show that in March 1991, the Philip Morris scientist who led studies on nicotine's impact on the brain met with neuroscientists at Kraft's sprawling research center in Glenview.
The scientist, Frank Gullotta, discussed with Andrade and others "the possibility of collaborative studies in areas that would be of mutual interest" to Kraft and Philip Morris, according to a Philip Morris memo describing the visit.
Gullotta, whose nicotine studies used electrodes attached to the scalp of human subjects, compared techniques with Kraft neuroscientist Pamela Scott-Johnson. She was using a "Brain Wave computer system" on rats to see how nerves that transmit tastes responded to fat and fat substitutes, the memo said.
In an interview, Scott-Johnson said her work at Kraft focused on only the biology of flavor perception. "We never had discussions about addiction," said Scott-Johnson, now chair of the psychology department at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Andrade and other Kraft scientists continued to take part in meetings with Philip Morris researchers, leading to a 1998 memo that suggested applying their combined expertise in brain science and flavor perception to develop products.
The "possible business implications" of such work included ways to shape people's perception of hunger and fullness, known as satiety. The memo stated that applications could include "food/drinks whose aroma/flavor are engineered to influence satiety, drinkability, perceived freshness, mood, behavior, purchase intent, etc."
Andrade declined to comment, referring questions to Kraft.
Company spokeswoman Nancy Daigler said Kraft "has conducted extensive research into literally thousands of aspects of food science, especially regarding which flavors and smells are appealing to consumers. Clearly, our brains play a role in our sensory experiences, so some of our research necessarily relates to the brain.
"However, we do not conduct or fund any research aimed at creating consumer dependency upon any of our products."
As trial lawyers work to paint food companies with the same brush as cigarette-makers, Kraft has put veterans of the tobacco wars in crucial positions.
It recently made Mark Berlind the company's chief public relations strategist and a top corporate officer.
Before landing the post, the attorney was a registered federal lobbyist promoting the tobacco interests of Altria Group, which owns 85 percent of Kraft and all of Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro cigarettes. (Berlind said lobbying "never comprised even close to a majority of my job responsibilities at Altria.")
Kraft said employees have moved between Altria and Kraft "to share and build talent."
In the last year, Kraft also has beefed up its efforts in Washington, taking one of Altria's top tobacco lobbyists--Abigail Blunt, wife of House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
She was one of five Altria tobacco lobbyists who lobbied Congress last year on the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, according to federal disclosure records. Better known as the cheeseburger bill, the legislation would shield food companies from lawsuits brought by people who blamed corporations for their obesity.
A 2003 hearing on the bill before the House Judiciary Committee devolved into a dispute over claims that some foods could be addictive.
Nutrition activists who testified included one who had decried cheese as "morphine on a cracker." Meanwhile, a lobbyist funded by major food companies (though not Kraft) charged that research on the addictive qualities of food came from discredited scientists whose work didn't pass the test of peer review.
By focusing on the extremes, both sides ignored the recent wave of discoveries about the brain's reward system--all of it in peer-reviewed, respected journals--that has transformed ideas about why people are drawn to fattening foods.
Drewnowski, the scientist who helped thrust the Oreo into the annals of brain research, was alarmed by the debate in Congress. "All we can say is the pleasure response to food probably does involve some opiate response," he said. "Are these foods addictive? I would not say so on that basis."
Consumers such as Karen Brown, a Colorado hairdresser and fitness instructor, are all too familiar with the powerful pull of junk food. Brown, a mother of four, said she used to eat an entire large package of Oreos in a day. She still calls them her "trigger food."
"They made me feel good," Brown said. "But the satisfaction was very short-lived."
About eight years ago, Brown lost 70 pounds by carefully cutting calories in her diet and exercising regularly. Once or twice a year, though, she'll have one Oreo. "I've used my control," she says. She tells herself, "Easy does it. Just one."
Chapter 4: Wrestling with the `A' word
Consumers sense that food has addictive qualities even if the specter of litigation makes scientists reluctant to say so.
Denise Gross knew she shouldn't be eating more Oreos. She's overweight and loves the cookies too much. Yet once more she found herself standing in a South Loop snack aisle on a sunny afternoon, about to buy Double Stuf Oreos for herself and her three kids.
"They're almost addictive," Gross said, a description she and other cookie fans volunteered without prompting.
Gross' urge raises a question scientists still have not resolved: What should we call such craving for food if not addiction?
Some experts have no reservations describing food as one more potentially addictive substance.
"I think you can properly regard food addiction as somewhat similar to drug addiction," said Tung Fong, director of metabolic diseases research at drugmaker Merck & Co. "If you can help people to at least reduce their craving levels, you'll contribute a lot to solving the obesity epidemic."
Gene-Jack Wang, a researcher at the government's Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, gets nervous at the mere question of whether food might be addictive. "If I say that, people kill me," Wang said jokingly.
But in an e-mail response sent later, Wang was more forceful about the link. He wrote that although everyone must take responsibility for their own health, "Some people can't help themselves ... Their overeating behaviors are just like the compulsive drug-using behavior of the drug addicts."
One incentive to avoid the "a" word is the risk of being dragged into lawsuits against the food industry, said Levine of the University of Minnesota. "The reason there's a tap dance [about addiction] is the litigious aspect," Levine said. "It's very dangerous to bring up."
That risk has influenced the language that Kraft's executives use to talk about addiction research. Kraft is mindful of the mistake of tobacco executives who in 1994 told Congress nicotine was not addictive--a claim contradicted by tobacco company documents that cost the industry hundreds of billions in nationwide liability lawsuits.
Kraft public relations executive Berlind said the company's approach is to stay neutral on the question of whether food can be addictive.
"I don't think we consider it our role to dispute that or endorse it or anything," Berlind said of the research on food and addiction.
Johnson, Kraft's North America chief, said issues of food and addiction "pose novel policy questions for public health officials and policymakers."
The specter of food lawsuits isn't far-fetched. The families of two obese New York children sued McDonald's in 2002. The suit, the most prominent to date, initially was dismissed, in part because the judge ruled that the plaintiffs offered insufficient evidence that the chain's food caused their weight problems.
But earlier this year, an appellate court reinstated part of the case, clearing the way for a discovery process that will allow the plaintiffs to demand previously secret company documents.
John Banzhaf III, a George Washington University law professor who helped plot the tobacco industry's legal defeats in the 1990s, believes lawsuits against food companies could work. Plaintiffs, he said, have to show that food companies used deceptive practices or hid any addictivelike effects of their products.
Whatever the legal outcome, precisely how to define the compulsion for some foods may be beside the point. While it is possible for addicts to go cold turkey from cocaine or other addictive drugs, no one can avoid fattening foods altogether.
Overcoming the ancient lure of sugar and fat may require not just responsibility but personal transformation. It's the ordinary daring of a woman testing her will under a supermarket's fluorescent lights, wondering why the shiny blue package on the shelf has to wind up in her shopping cart again today.
"Unfortunately they are doing their thing on me," Gross said as she eyed the rows of cookies. "I have to learn to say no to Oreos."