Sometimes Chinese food tastes so damn good that you might even think there's a little something "extra" in it. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is usually the first ingredient that comes to mind; the artificial flavor enhancer that often finds its way into a heaping helping of Kung Pao is also used in products like canned vegetables and soups, potato chips and even Chick-fil-A sandwiches. MSG has also been blamed for a smattering of side effects, including nausea, rashes and headaches.
Maybe that's why some restaurants in China have been looking elsewhere to give their dishes a little seasoning. A total of 35 eateries were recently busted for serving up meals with a pinch of opium poppies. It's not the first time that restaurants in China have been caught dusting plates with the illicit drug. But, that doesn't necessarily mean folks are likely to get hooked on opium-flavored chow mein, or start wandering the streets of Beijing, scratching themselves and foaming at the mouth in some "Walking Dead"-esque drug-food addiction stupor anytime soon.
"No amount of opium added to hamburgers, for example, would ever make someone dependent on beef," says Carnegie Mellon University public policy professor Jonathan Caulkins. That's because it's the chemicals in the drugs, not the food, that attach to neurons in the brain and stimulate the body. "It might create dependence on opioids, and it might make someone enjoy those hamburgers more and so develop a positive feeling toward that restaurant, but you can't transfer the addiction to one molecule over to another molecule that is consumed at the same time."
The opium plant is a source of a wide range of prescription and street drugs known as opiates. Opium is one of those drugs, a highly addictive narcotic that comes from the dried latex found in the opium poppy seed pod. The substance usually contains varying amounts of morphine, codeine and other alkaloids. It has been smoked, drank and ingested both recreationally and as a sort of cure-all for thousands of years.
Still, Caulkins says it's unlikely that sprinkling some poppies here and there is enough to get folks hooked on a stir fry. For one thing, drug addiction isn't instant. That means eaters would have to keep eating opium-laced foods in order to risk developing a dependence. In addition, not everyone gets all the good feels in their first tango with the drug.
"Many people have an adverse initial reaction to opioids, and they may feel nauseous," according to Caulkins. "It is not obvious to me that opium is even the best choice among illegal drugs for trying to exploit in this way."
Restaurant owners who want to keep people coming back for more also have plenty of legal ways to do it. High calorie-contents and loads of sugar are just two of the features that explain those long lines at fast food drive-thru windows, so for now, skip the General Tso's white horse.