Can Sugar Really Be More Addictive Than Recreational Drugs?

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Tesco came under fierce criticism last month after deciding to axe our beloved hangover medicine (and dry-mouth absolver) Ribena. The shock move came amid growing concerns over the links between high sugar content in our food and drinks and negative health implications such as obesity.

The whole episode got me thinking about sugar. How damaging to your health is it? It’s legal so presumably nowhere as near as damaging as recreational drugs like cocaine or heroin right?

Bart Hoebel is a Professor of Psychology at Princeton University in the US, in 2008 he led a study which demonstrated a sugar addiction in rats. The lab rats that were denied sugar for a prolonged period, after being allowed to binge on it, worked harder to get it when it was reintroduced to them. They consumed more sugar than they ever had before, suggesting craving and relapse behaviour. Their motivation for sugar had increased vastly.

He concluded that a pattern of fasting and overloading on sugary foods may cause a dependence. He argues that this is because sugar triggers the release of dopamine and opioids. “We think that is a key to the addiction process” Hoebel concluded. Adding that “the brain is getting addicted to its own opioids as it would to morphine or heroin. Drugs give a bigger effect, but it is essentially the same process”. However, it is useful to note that although the study gives us valuable insight into the potential addictive nature of sugar, some have questioned the extent that we can generalise the findings of rats to humans.

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Paul van der Velpen, a senior health official in Holland, spearheaded a campaign in 2013 to reduce the health implications of sugar. He wrote on an official government website that “just like alcohol and tobacco, sugar is actually a drug” and spoke with the same sentiment as Hoebel arguing that sugar interferes with the body’s appetite, creating an increased drive to carry on eating. He also accused the food industry of using the effect of sugar to increase the sale and consumption of their products.

American health expert Andrew Weil, M.D., tackled the topic of addictive drugs in his influential book From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know About Mind Altering Drugs. He outlined a scientific definition of the term ‘drug’ which is: any substance that that in small amounts produces significant changes in body, mind, or both.

Weil argues:

We recognise heroin as a drug. It is a white powder that in small doses produces big changes in the body and mind.

But is sugar a drug? Sugar is also a white powder that affects the body and mind. How about salt? Many people think they cannot live without salt in their diet and it also has a powerful effect on body and mind.

Anyone who has attempted to resist the delights of the ‘sugar rush’ from a can of Coca-Cola during a long afternoon at work may be able to relate to this. But does it actually mean that sugar can be as addictive as illegal drugs?

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An interesting study by neuroscience Professor Joseph Schroeder, of Connecticut College in the US, set out to investigate a link between obesity and food rich in fats and sugar. He fed Oreo biscuits and rice cakes to rats and the results were compared to a similar test done with drugs like cocaine and morphine.

“It was seen that Oreos were capable of activating more neurons in the rats than the drugs do,” Schroeder said in a press release. “It may explain why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them.”

So shall we stop having two sugars in our tea and revert to chasing the dragon or tooting on the occasional crack pipe instead? Probably not. Should we consider that we could be somewhat addicted to sugar and think twice before ordering the next McDonald’s out of boredom? Probably.