We all know that sugar is bad for us, but that doesn’t stop us from eating an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream in one sitting. Ask yourself, did you ever think that your willingness to funnel sugar and fat down your throat could be compared to someone snorting lines of cocaine, despite knowing it’s harmful effects? A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Bordeaux suggests that intense sweetness might actually be more addictive than cocaine—one of the most harmful and addictive substances known to man!
The sweetness receptors, located on our tongues, are an evolutionary product of previous human societies, which were poor in sugars. Meaning that our ancestors needed to find the most carb filled, sugar dense foods to stay alive. Consequently, the stimulation of these receptors produces a highly rewarding [pleasurable] sensation in our brains.
Previous experiments have identified neurological similarities between the effects of sucrose and drugs of abuse. Both increase dopamine firing in the areas of our brain that process reward, specifically the ventral striatum. In fact, neuroimaging shows that changes in the brain of obese individuals mimic the changes in the brain of cocaine addicts, evidence for a common reward pathway in the brain. Both sugar overconsumption and drugs of abuse seem to hyper activate our reward pathways to a degree that our bodies are not evolutionally prepared for, thus increasing our susceptibility to addiction. This poses a problem in modern societies where these intensely sweet foods—basically, your candy bars and sodas—are widely available.
This 2007 experiment, performed in rats, gave subjects a choice between the two rewards and found that an overwhelming majority [94%] opted for intense sweetness over cocaine. The trend held true in subjects who displayed symptoms of cocaine addiction and even in subjects intoxicated by cocaine. The study went even further by also proving that subjects are willing to work for the sugar reward the same way that they will work for cocaine.
So, what can we say about all of this? Well, because both of these rewards are processed through the same pathway in our brains, it can be stimulated by both cocaine and sugar in a very similar way! This study goes even further and suggests that the reward [aka: ‘good feels’] associated with sugar may be better than the reward paired with cocaine—a drug that makes you feel absolutely GREAT!
Whoa, this may be a lot to take in. But let us keep in mind that we still do not know the addictive qualities of these substances relative to each other, or other drugs for that matter. All that we can conclude is that sugar makes you really happy—‘well, duh didn’t need an experiment to tell me that’—but it’s addictive potential may be greater than we previously thought.