Remember those sugary breakfast cereals you loved as a kid?Turns out that the amount of sugar we are exposed to as children has the potential to affect how we perceive sweet foods into adulthood. A recent study compared a group of rats that was given sugar water during adolescence (let’s call them sugar rats) with a group that was never exposed to sugar until adulthood to see how much it impacted their reactions to it. Shockingly, the study found that those who had already been exposed to sugar water did not find it any more enjoyable than plain water as adults. This is equivalent to you having no preference between chocolate cake and a bland cracker. It seems impossible, but we do experience a less drastic version of this. Try to remember the first time you had chocolate cake; does it taste as good now as it did that first time?
I know what you’re thinking- how do you measure whether or not a rat is enjoying sugar water? Scientists can use certain behavioral responses to determine an animal’s reaction to taste, such as licking their lips if they enjoy it. Not only did the sugar rats have fewer positive reactions to sugar water, they also lacked a preference between the sugar water and regular water, while the other rats greatly preferred the sugar water.By studying brain activity, researchers found that the rats all tasted sugar water in thesame way, regardless of whether they had been exposed to it in their youth. The sugar rats, however, did not show much activity in areas of the brain that process reward. This implies that the difference between the groups was not in their ability to physically taste the sweetness, but in their perception of it as something rewarding. In other words, the way we taste chocolate cake has not changed, but the rewarding value of it has, making it seem less satisfying.
So, why does any of this matter to us? If we apply these same concepts to humans, it gives us a potential reason for the overconsumption of sugar we see in today’s society. Are the sugary foods we are fed as children the reason why we consume high quantities of sweeteners? The cake we ate as a kid could have affected our brains in a way that makes us only appreciate sugar when it is there in high amounts, leading us to consume more sugary cakes, candy, and soda. We know that the overconsumption of sugar contributes to many health problems we now face such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, but has that stopped you from eating that piece of chocolate cake after dinner? I know it hasn’t stopped me! This research gives insight into the need to change our eating habits starting from childhood to create a healthier society, but requires us to figure out a solution for those who are past adolescence. It begs the question: can these brain effects be reversed?
- Adams, M., & Berger, D. (n.d.). [Counterthink Rat Lab]. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/connie-bennett/the-rats-who-preferred-su_b_712254.html
- Chocolate Cake. (2011, October 11). Retrieved November 29, 2017, from https://www.mybakingaddiction.com/the-best-chocolate-cake/
- Naneix, F., Darlot, F., Coutureau, E., & Cador, M. (2016). Long-lasting deficits in hedonic and nucleus accumbens reactivity to sweet rewards by sugar overconsumption during adolescence. European Journal of Neuroscience,1-10.
- Watterson, B. (1986, March 22). Calvin and Hobbes[Cartoon]. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/1986/03/22