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Your Brain on Food

Calling a dish “crack” can come off as false advertising at best, poor taste at worst. We test the claims (because, yes, someone had to).

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When did naming foods after a powerful narcotic become a thing? Probably not long after Momofuku Milk Bar dealt its first slab of Crack Pie in the fall of 2008. Now the mean streets of New York are rife with “salted crack caramel” ice cream, “pistachio crack” brittle, “crack steak” sandwiches, and “tuna on crack.” Down in the East Village, there’s even something called “crack kale,” which doesn’t seem technically or culinarily possible. A nutritional nitpicker might ask whether we ought to be celebrating foods high in fat, sugar, and salt, substances a recent Scripps Research Institute study found were so addictive that their regular ingestion changed the brain chemistry of lab rats in the same way that cocaine and heroin do. In fact, one nutritional nitpicker has: No less a food-world luminary than Alice Waters takes issue with the practice, as you’d expect of a woman whose higher purpose in life is to get children to eat (and grow) their vegetables. As final-round arbiter of the crowd-sourced website food52’s recent “Piglet” cookbook competition, ­Waters awarded the top prize to the title that went up against Momofuku Milk Bar, going so far as to associate Crack Pie with the larger issue of how highly processed, dietarily ­destructive ingredients are corrupting our youth. Left unsaid, however, was whether Waters ever actually tasted the thing. That, to our minds, is really the only way to assess whether a food truly deserves its crack moniker—both from a subjective taste perspective and in an engineered-specifically-to-trigger-your-basest-instincts way. (Evil junk-food masterminds, as you may know, synthesize flavors that are bold and intense up front but then quickly fade away, which is why it’s so hard to stop despite increasing feelings of self-loathing.) So in the line of duty, and like a pair of Scripps Research rats, we set out on a crack-food binge and rated the contenders according to our own crack-food Cheetometer: One Cheeto represents a barely perceptible buzz, while five indicates something like a complete rewiring of the brain’s dopamine-fueled pleasure center.


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