Should sugar be treated as an addictive drug?

Scott Sutherland
October 29, 2013

Last month, there were a lot of headlines in the news about how sugar is 'the most dangerous drug of our time', and should get the same kind of warning labels that tobacco gets. With the obesity problem plaguing many countries, it would certainly seem like there may be a problem, but is sugar really all that bad?

The basic fact of our brains is that if something is pleasurable, we'll seek it out — whether it's good for us (like exercise or sex), or bad for us (like drugs or alcohol), or inherently neither (gambling, internet use, and just about anything else). Just by seeking these things out doesn't make us addicted. Many of us do one, more, or all of those things and have no problems whatsoever. It's an addiction when we keep seeking it out even though doing so is harmful, and that can apply to anything.

Some activities and substances are definitely more addictive than others, of course. It all depends on how strong the 'high' is for us and how hard the 'crash' and 'withdrawal' are afterwards. It's not always obvious what will be the most addictive, either. Researchers at Connecticut College discussed a recent study earlier this month with some interesting preliminary results: at least for rats, Oreo cookies stimulated more neurons in the pleasure centre of the brain than either cocaine or morphine, making the cookies potentially more addictive.

Add to that the fact that, once someone is addicted, it usually ends up taking a higher and higher dose to get the same high.

With sugar, Edythe London, a professor of addiction studies and director of the UCLA Center for Addictive Behaviors, would rather lump it under a broader title of 'pathological obesity', since it has more to do with uncontrolled caloric intake, rather than just sugar. However, she also pointed out in an interview with LiveScience that both obese people and drug addicts have fewer dopamine receptors in a region of their brain called the striatum. With fewer receptors, it requires more dopamine to flood through the brain to hit them, thus higher and more frequent doses of whatever is releasing the dopamine.

[ More Geekquinox: Bad moods can be good for the brain, says researchers ]

Still, there's an awful lot of uncertainty about exactly who will become addicted to something, or how much it will take to become addicted, no matter what it is. Some people may be more susceptible than others, and it may come down to genetics or environment, or a combination of both.

However, as London told LiveScience: "With the explosion of obesity in the United States, it's clear that [some] people have uncontrolled caloric intake."

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

Geek out with the latest in science and weather.
Follow @ygeekquinox on Twitter!