Better than Rice-a-Roni

Researchers at Connecticut College in New London recently discovered that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine — at least, in rats. First, I am stunned that they could find that many rodent coke addicts to use in the study (who knew?), but I am equally amazed that it is the mundane Oreo cookie that is driving all of their little rat cocaine dealers out of business!

Seriously, everyone can look back and remember the first moment in their life when they were really driven to do something — like lick the creamy center of an Oreo. Some harken back to grade school when they went on a field trip to clean up Ocean Beach and today, they are employed by the EPA. Others took drama class in high school where they discovered they were destined to act, and now you can catch them wearing a Goofy costume at Disneyland. Or, as in the rare case of Lowell High graduate Carol Channing, winning three Tony’s, but that’s another story.

For me, my “drive” was literally to Swensen’s for a hot-fudge sundae, and from that day forward, all roads have led to Hyde and Union Streets. From age seven, my primary goal in life was to get my dad to take us out for ice cream. I had an arsenal of tricks to get him there, saying things like, “Dad, I read an article in the Chronicle about how ice cream builds stronger bones in children. Can you imagine what a sundae would do?!” or “Dad, you know those cigars you love? There’s a new smoke shop that carries them and I think it’s around, well, Hyde and Union!” Sometimes, my tactics worked, but generally they failed pitifully, so I had an alternate plan that I thought was pretty clever: I would grow up, graduate from high school, then graduate from college and graduate school, then get a job, get married, and return to San Francisco so I could find a place to live within walking distance of Swensen’s. And my plan worked!

Maybe I don’t have the ultra-sensitive taste buds of those rats that ate all of the Oreos, but I still don’t understand the attraction. Think about it: Oreo was originally “America’s Favorite Cookie,” but for some reason, in 2004, even Nabisco downgraded them to, “Milk’s Favorite Cookie.” Now, with the current press, the slogan may soon be, “A Rat’s Favorite Cookie,” although I don’t think that will increase sales.

But perhaps it isn’t about how delicious Oreos are that entices those little vermin to jones for them. Think about their diet. If we had to eat things like moldy pizza crusts, month-old rotting cantaloupe and Crisco chunks (which I suspect is one of their essential food groups), we would all be addicted to Oreos!

The Oreo study, led by a Professor Joseph Schroeder, was presented recently at the annual conference of the Society of Neuroscience. Apparently, the rats, housed in a maze, were given only two choices: rice cakes or Oreos. Seriously? I guess if that was the criteria, we are all untested Oreo addicts — with the one exception of my friend Caroline, who is a total health nut.

And yet, and yet … those huge, hot-fudge sundaes at Swenson’s really have me hooked even though I have many other choices of things to eat besides rice cakes.

Maybe it isn’t Swensen’s that has me under its spell, but the entire experience of going to get ice cream that conjures up such happy memories. I remember sitting next to my father in the car, bursting with pride that I must have done something really right to be entitled to a sundae! Sometimes, though, his offer to take me for a sundae was simply his ploy to get me across town to go to my pediatrician’s office for a shot, but either way, it was a thing of beauty. It was also my first real-life experience of the fact that that there is no free lunch, or in my case, no free sundae. Which, if it were up to me, would be my lunch.

To the Oreo addiction researcher, I’d like to suggest a follow-up experiment with rats — or myself. Isolate the rats (or myself) and give them (or me) only two choices of food: rice cakes or a Swensen’s hot-fudge sundae. I think the study would conclude that rats (and needless to say, myself) are addicted to hot-fudge sundaes.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that rats aren’t addicted to Oreos. I am just suggesting that to accurately test that assumption, the scientists must verify that the lab rats (a) were not previously sugar deficient, and (b) do not have an emotional attachment to Oreos due to lingering childhood memories of grazing on cookie crumbs with their beloved rat parents in a dumpster. As do I with hot-fudge sundaes from Swensen’s!

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, the Connecticut College study also found that the majority of rats, just like humans, enjoyed eating the creamy filling first.

Sandy Fertman Ryan has written for numerous national magazines, including Seventeen, Parade and Cosmogirl. Other than sundaes, she is addicted to talking to strangers’ dogs, laughing at her own jokes, and bagels. E-mail: [email protected]

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