A new study indicates that our love of sugar may not be so innocent, but sugar could perhaps be a full-fledged addiction – and a major contributor to the United States obesity epidemic.
It’s long been known that sugary foods (whether natural or artificially sweetened) possess addictive properties, but little research exists on exactly how addictive they are. In an attempt to examine the addictiveness of sugar compared to drugs of abuse, researchers from University Bordeaux designed an experiment in which lab rats were given a choice between two levers: pressing one would give temporary access to sweetened water, and pressing the other would give a dose of cocaine. Rats would press the lever for whichever substance they preferred. It’s important to note that preference does not equate directly to addictiveness, but to reward value, which is just one important factor involved in addiction.
While at first the rats displayed no preference for either sugar water or cocaine, surprisingly, the rats quickly developed an incredibly strong preference for the sugar water. Neither upping the cocaine dose nor making rats work harder for the sugar water (by increasing the number of lever presses needed to make the sugar available) impacted their preference. Even rats that had been given 3 weeks of access to cocaine before being introduced to the sugar water, and therefore possessed a pre-existing preference for cocaine, changed their preference for the sweetened water within 10 days. The immediate takeaway: sugar is substantially more rewarding than previously thought.
These findings have wide-sweeping implications. For one, they run counter to previous research which has indicated that, from a strictly neurochemical perspective, cocaine appears to produce greater reward and motivation value than sugary foods. The researchers suggest that future studies are necessary to better understand the neural reward mechanism at play, specifically regarding dopamine release in the ventral striatum.
The study also has important implications for our cultural attitudes toward sugary foods and obesity. Magalie Lenoir, the head author of the study, says, “The amount of sugar in foods and beverages like soda is so great that it could override our natural self-control mechanisms.” In other words, sugar might be so rewarding that it could lead to addiction. Western culture has generally been skeptical about food addiction; overeating is often seen as a result of poor self-control or laziness (Obesity.org, 2010). This study calls those attitudes into question. Overcoming an addiction generally requires people to avoid situations in which they will feel tempted to use again. But sugar, one of the major contributors to the obesity epidemic, is so ubiquitous that it’s basically impossible to avoid – meaning possible sugar addictions would be extremely resilient. Perhaps self-control simply is not enough, and changes in the food and beverage industries are necessary in order to stave off the obesity epidemic. Something has to change or in the words of Surgeon General Richard Carmona, “. . .we may see the first generation that will. . . have a shorter life expectancy than their parents,” (American Heart Association, 2015).
Obesity, Bias, and Stigmatization. (2010). Obesity.org. Retrieved October 22, 2015.
Overweight in Children. (2015, August 17). American Heart Association. Retrieved November 18, 2015.