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Sugar Season. It’s Everywhere, and Addictive.


YOUR co-worker brought in brownies,
your daughter made cookies for a
holiday party and candy is arriving
from far-flung relatives. Sugar is
everywhere. It is celebration, it is
festivity, it is love.
It’s also dangerous. In a recent study,
we showed that sugar, perhaps more
than salt, contributes to the
development of cardiovascular disease.
Evidence is growing, too, that eating too
much sugar can lead to fatty liver
disease , hypertension , Type 2 diabetes ,
obesity and kidney disease.
Yet people can’t resist. And the reason
for that is pretty simple. Sugar is
addictive. And we don’t mean addictive
in that way that people talk about
delicious foods. We mean addictive,
literally, in the same way as drugs. And
the food industry is doing everything it
can to keep us hooked.
Up until just a few hundred years ago,
concentrated sugars were essentially
absent from the human diet — besides,
perhaps, the fortuitous find of small
quantities of wild honey. Sugar would
have been a rare source of energy in
the environment, and strong cravings
for it would have benefited human
survival. Sugar cravings would have
prompted searches for sweet foods , the
kind that help us layer on fat and store
energy for times of scarcity.
Today added sugar is everywhere, used
in approximately 75 percent of
packaged foods purchased in the United
States. The average American consumes
anywhere from a quarter to a half
pound of sugar a day. If you consider
that the added sugar in a single can of
soda might be more than most people
would have consumed in an entire
year, just a few hundred years ago, you
get a sense of how dramatically our
environment has changed. The sweet
craving that once offered a survival
advantage now works against us.
Whereas natural sugar sources like
whole fruits and vegetables are
generally not very concentrated
because the sweetness is buffered by
water, fiber and other constituents,
modern industrial sugar sources are
unnaturally potent and quickly provide
a big hit. Natural whole foods like beets
are stripped of their water, fiber,
vitamins , minerals and all other
beneficial components to produce
purified sweetness. All that’s left are
pure, white, sugary crystals.
A comparison to drugs would not be
misplaced here. Similar refinement
processes transform other plants like
poppies and coca into heroin and
cocaine. Refined sugars also affect
people’s bodies and brains.
Substance use disorders, defined by the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of
Mental Disorders, exist when at least
two to three symptoms from a list of 11
are present. In animal models, sugar
produces at least three symptoms
consistent with substance abuse and
dependence: cravings, tolerance and
withdrawal. Other druglike properties
of sugar include (but are not limited to)
cross-sensitization, cross-tolerance,
cross-dependence, reward, opioid
effects and other neurochemical
changes in the brain . In animal studies,
animals experience sugar like a drug
and can become sugar-addicted. One
study has shown that if given the
choice, rats will choose sugar over
cocaine in lab settings because the
reward is greater; the “high” is more
In humans, the situation may not be
very different. Sugar stimulates brain
pathways just as an opioid would, and
sugar has been found to be habit-
forming in people. Cravings induced by
sugar are comparable to those induced
by addictive drugs like cocaine and
nicotine . And although other food
components may also be pleasurable,
sugar may be uniquely addictive in the
food world. For instance, functional
M.R.I. tests involving milkshakes
demonstrate that it’s the sugar, not the
fat, that people crave. Sugar is added to
foods by an industry whose goal is to
engineer products to be as irresistible
and addictive as possible. How can we
kick this habit? One route is to make
foods and drinks with added sugar
more expensive, through higher taxes.
Another would be to remove sugar-
sweetened beverages from places like
schools and hospitals or to regulate
sugar-added products just as we do
alcohol and tobacco, for instance, by
putting restrictions on advertising and
by slapping on warning labels.
But as we suggested in two academic
papers, one on salt and sugar in the
journal Open Heart and the other on
sugar and calories in Public Health
Nutrition, focusing narrowly on added
sugar could have unintended
consequences. It could prompt the food
industry to inject something equally or
more harmful into processed foods, as
an alternative.
A better approach to sugar rehab is to
promote the consumption of whole,
natural foods. Substituting whole foods
for sweet industrial concoctions may be
a hard sell, but in the face of an
industry that is exploiting our biological
nature to keep us addicted, it may be
the best solution for those who need
that sugar fix.


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