Do Hidden Opiates in Our Food Explain Food Addictions?
Food addictions are not strictly “psychological” problems, but have a hard-wired, organic component. Many of the most commonly consumed foods in Western culture actually contain narcotic narcotic properties associated with the presence of psychoactive chemicals that bind to opioid receptors in the nervous system. These peptides are so powerful that researchers block their action with drugs such as naltrexone which is used to treat addiction among heroin abusers, and naloxone which is used to prevent death from heroin overdose.
These “food opiates” are heavily concentrated in wheat and dairy products, especially cow’s milk. Wheat contains the following opioid peptides, known as gluten exorphins, alongside which are listed their amino acid structure:
- Gluten exorphin A5: H-Gly-Tyr-Tyr-Pro-Thr-OH
- Gluten exorphin B4: H-Tyr-Gly-Gly-Trp-OH
- Gluten exorphin B5: H-Tyr-Gly-Gly-Trp-Leu-OH
- Gluten exorphin C: H-Tyr-Pro-Ile-Ser-Leu-OH
- Gliadorphin: Tyr-Pro-Gln-Pro-Gln-Pro-Phe
- β-casomorphin 1-3: H-Tyr-Pro-Phe-OH
- Bovine β-casomorphin 1-4: H-Tyr-Pro-Phe-Pro-OH
- Bovine β-casomorphin 1-4, amide: H-Tyr-Pro-Phe-Pro-NH2
- Bovine β-casomorphin 5: H-Tyr-Pro-Phe-Pro-Gly-OH
- Bovine β-casomorphin 7: H-Tyr-Pro-Phe-Pro-Gly-Pro-Ile-OH
- Bovine β-casomorphin 8: H-Tyr-Pro-Phe-Pro-Gly-Pro-Ile-Pro-OH
It can be argued that many of the most popular foods consumed in Western culture are done so not primarily for their nutritive value but rather for their addictive properties. Some of these foods we become truly infatuated with and are identified as “comfort foods,” that are “to die for,” or that we “love.”
Food opiates are widely distributed throughout our diet, and are found in many unsuspecting places. Fructose, which is fast becoming the primary source of calories in the American diet, while not itself an opioid peptide, is known to increase brain levels of endogenous morphine following ingestion,and may produce metabolic products in the brain very similar to those produced by morphine. In fact, it has been identified to stimulate a “hedonic pathway” in the brain, not unlike alcohol, which incidentally is metabolized along the same liver pathways.Fructose, in isolated or concentrated form, is highly toxic and have been linked to over 70 health conditions.
Some other common food opiates include
- Spinach: popular leafy green contains two opioid peptides named rubiscolins-5 and -6.
- Coffee: the oil known as cafestrol which is found in both decaffeinated and caffeinated coffee contains potent morphine-like activity. Many of coffee’s effects therefore may be mediated via opiate receptors, as well as the effects of caffeine. 
- Rice protein: rice albumin may have opioid properties, depending on how thoroughly it is digested; incomplete digestion may increase the likelihood of there being a pharmacologically active effect.
- Meat and Fish Protein: when complex animal proteins are enzymatically degraded some exhibit opiate-like properties. Some of these “biogenic peptides” as they are known have been investigated for their potential role in the treatment and prevention of hypertension.
- Chocolate: One of the well-known mechanisms behind cocoa’s cardioprotective activity is the ability of epicatechin to act via opioid receptors, specifically through the δ-opioid receptor, to produce cardiac protection from injury associated with low oxygen. Animal feeding studies also show that the opiate-blocking drug naloxone reduces chocolate cravings, suggesting that some of chocolate’s desirable qualities may be related to their opiate activity in the nervous system.
- Sugar: As mentioned above fructose has opiate-like properties, but so does sucrose (table sugar) and glucose. Since starch as found in “complex carbohydrates” is hidden sugar and often technically higher on the glycemic index than actual sugar (e.g. puffed rice makes the blood sweeter than white sugar), even grains may elicit addictive behaviors through the modulation of opioid pathways in the brain.
While many of our most commonly consumed foods and beverages contain food opiates, our original infatuation with opiate peptides actually begins at birth, as is nature’s inherently intelligent design. Being born into the world an extremely underdeveloped mammal (i.e. compared to horses we take years longer to gain independence),* the biological imperative is for there to be a strong bond between mother and offspring consummated in the act of breastfeeding.
Breast milk, therefore, contains actual morphine. This is to ensure that a very close bond forms and that the offspring will seek out and obtain nourishment by garnishing physical dependency.
The fact that our first food — breast milk — contains opiates and that the biosynthetic pathway for morphine exist in tissues such as the liver, blood and brain, indicate that our species was destined to be drawn to substances that either mimic the action of opiates, or modulate their secretion and/or activity within our bodies.
Ultimately, many food opiates are consumed in order to self-medicate. Coffee, for instance, has profound psychoactive properties that cannot be reduced to its caffeine content alone. The opiate-like property of coffee explains why it may relax and/or reduce stress in certain people, raising the threshold of anxiety or aggression in a way quite opposite to what would be expected from the effects of caffeine alone.
This effect may be maintained as long as coffee is administered continuously, like any other pharmacologically drug. However, if suddenly withdrawn, some experience symptoms identical to those associated with withdrawal from opiate drugs.
In addition, many food opiates, such as are found in wheat and cow’s milk products, entice us to consume foods that are intrinsically unhealthy. Wheat, for instance, has been linked to over 160 health conditions, and cow’s milk is known to be a risk factor for type 1 diabetes. But both are consumed globally in the billions of pounds and lauded as “health foods” by the unsuspecting masses unaware of the addictive hold they may have on them. The Dark Side of Wheat and cow’s milk is rarely acknowledged, though the role of food opiates may shed some much needed light on the topic.
The point is that food is not just a “fuel” for the body, as classically defined through nutritional reductionism. It has profound genoregulatory and neuroendocrine modulating properties. One of the best ways to ascertain whether food opiates are affecting your health is to embark on an elimination diet. Sometimes following a gluten or cow’s milk free diet, the physiological shackles are thrown off, and it is possible to experience renewed health and vitality.
Many seemingly unrelated health conditions may improve and/or go into remission. When the food is reintroduced months later, it is far easier to feel its true effects on the body — adverse effects that were always there, but due to their chronic consumption were considered normal.
*an interesting fact of evolutionary biology is that our head size has grown so large in proportion to our hip size that we must be born with a relatively underdeveloped body in order to make it through the birth canal. This ensures that a great proportion of our development must occur outside of the womb, making our dependence on milk much more intense.
For the same reason that human breast milk contains morphine, the casomorphins in cow’s milk are intended to sedate/placate/anesthetize calves born into the wild. Is it any surprise that humans (whose poignantly aware brains contain as many neurons as stars in our galaxy!) are the only mammals who never stop weaning themselves from this narcotic elixir? Perhaps we dope and dumb ourselves down with these opiate peptides in order not to go insane from the poignant awareness that such a huge brain generates.
Opioid receptor antagonism in the nucleus accumbens fails to block the expression of sugar-conditioned flavor preferences in rats. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2010 Mar ;95(1):56-62. Epub 2009 Dec 13. PMID: 20006967
 Dark chocolate receptors: epicatechin-induced cardiac protection is dependent on delta-opioid receptor stimulation. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol. 2010 Nov ;299(5):H1604-9. Epub 2010 Sep 10. PMID: 20833967
By Sayer Ji
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