The War on Sweets: Is Sugar the Next Dangerous Drug?

Is the possession of a sweet tooth actually an indication of addiction? Though sugar is considered relatively harmless and far less powerful than cocaine, four scientists from the University of Bordeaux conducted an experiment, and their conclusion might surprise you. Rats actually prefer sugar to the infamously dangerous and addictive substance, cocaine.

These researchers asked which reward, cocaine or sugar, the rats would prefer, and which of the two would most powerfully affect the rat’s choices. Initially, the scientists studied the choice between sugar and cocaine when both were just as easily available. They allowed 43 rats to pick between two levers: one that gave them a dose of cocaine, and one that gave them a sip of sugar water. These rats were compared with rats that had access to only sugar or only cocaine.

Astonishingly, the rats with access to both sugar and cocaine chose sugar far more than cocaine. Even more shocking, it appeared that rats established their preference for sugar over cocaine in far less time than rats with access to only sugar or only cocaine. It seems like the choice between sugar and cocaine was an easy one.

Dr. Lenoir reported in surprise that, “the rats chose saccharin [sugar] over cocaine without hesitation”! These findings directed the researchers to wonder if sugar would still be superior to cocaine, even in the minds of cocaine-addicted rats. When studied, rats with previous cocaine experience also began to prefer sugar when given the choice. Increasing the strength and number of the dose of cocaine, as well as delaying the sugar reward or increasing the amount of effort required to receive sugar changed nothing: the rats still preferred sugar! These additional factors indicate that sugar has a strong power over their behavior.

The rats’ consistent preference for sugar over cocaine throughout a barrage of different conditions suggests that sugar might be far more powerful and controlling than commonly thought. A sugar-rich diet does trigger the same dopamine release in similar pathways as many other drugs of abuse, but does this mean that sugar should be criminalized, and every cookie and soda should be confiscated? That is certainly unlikely.

Human agency, environment, and individuality definitely complicate these findings. Rats and humans may not have the same extreme preference to sugar over cocaine, nor does this study directly address the effects of sugar on health. These results should, however, lead to further studies comparing the health risks of excessive sugar and whether it is a truly addictive substance. Simply, the moral of the study is that, though cocaine has a plethora of harmful effects, one should be mindful of the influence legal substances might also have on us.


Mary Toomey

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