SUGAR: Our Most Addictive Substance

25 Jun 2019
SUGAR Our Most Addictive Substance
Read time: 10 min
Category: Diet

For decades it’s been a running joke among members of Alcoholic’s Anonymous (AA) and Narcotic’s Anonymous (NA)—‘get off the drugs and alcohol and get on the sugar.’

At just about any AA or NA meeting anywhere in the world you will find in the back of the meeting room tables laden with donuts, candies, cookies and sugar in every imaginable form. It’s the same scene at drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers where sodas, sugary juices, sugary snacks and energy drinks are distributed promiscuously to addicts who are unknowingly substituting one addiction for another.

Even the AA’s ‘Big Book’ as it is known, the 12 Step bible written by AA’s founder, urges addicts to eat candy when going sober because sugar is considered ‘harmless’ as a substitute for alcohol and drugs.

What happens to many, if not most, drug and alcohol addicts is they transfer their drug cravings into an addiction to sugar, a phenomenon now called ‘transfer addicting.’ The result is that many newly sober people put on extra weight and that added weight translates into Type 2 diabetes and a range of other health problems, as this book will demonstrate in coming chapters.

“Off the cocaine, onto the cupcakes,” remarked Dr. Pamela Peeke, an assistant professor of medicine at the University  of Maryland, in a 2014 interview with The New York Times. “Once off the drugs, the brain craves the rewards of Mint Milanos, Oreos, any sugar.”

Convincing evidence that sugar has an addictive influence on the human brain’s reward center, an effect more powerful than many addictive drugs, has come from medical science studies conducted over just the past few years.

A team of French scientists in 2007 did animal studies in which mammals were given a choice between intravenous cocaine or water sweetened with either saccharin or sucrose, a natural sugar. Most of the animals, 94% of them, preferred the sweet taste over their cocaine habit, no matter how much cocaine they were administered.

“Our findings clearly demonstrate that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and addicted individuals,” wrote the science team in a science journal article. “In most mammals, including humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants. The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.”

Other research by Professor Bart Hoebel and scientists at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute in 2008 documented how sugar releases the hormone dopamine in the brain and with repetition, or binge eating, this consumption results in sugar addiction. Over time neurochemical changes occur in the brain “that appear to mimic those produced by substances of abuse, including cocaine, morphine and nicotine,” said Hoebel. “In certain models, sugar bingeing causes long-lasting effects in the brain and increases the inclination to take other drugs of abuse, such as alcohol.”

As further evidence of sugar’s addictive power, when lab animals had their sugar supply taken away, the levels of dopamine in their brains dropped. As a result, these lab sugar addicts exhibited all of the classic signs of drug withdrawal seen in humans, such as anxiety, restlessness, fear and even teeth chattering. If sugar was reintroduced to their diet, these

animals consumed sugar ravenously and in larger quantities than they ever had before, showing the relapse potential.

These study results should have been immediately embraced by the entire substance addictions treatment industry. Feeding addicts sugar is simply going to prime their brains for future relapse. It’s no wonder that drug and alcohol addiction is so difficult to treat and relapse rates are so high.

As experiments with lab animals and sugar addiction became more sophisticated, so did the detail derived in explaining how sugar addicts the brain. Neuroscientists at Connecticut College place Oreo cookies, those crème-filled sugar products, on one side of the cage with injections of cocaine or morphine available on the other side. The animals gravitated to the cookies. When the research team measured the pleasure centers of the rat’s brains, they noted clear evidence that Oreo cookies activated more neurons to control behavior than did either morphine or cocaine. Not only that, rats preferred to eat the cookies by breaking it open and eating the sugar-laden crème first, much as humans do, before eating the chocolate wafers surrounding it.

Just to be sure that it is sugar and not fat that humans crave most, MRI scans have been done of human brains when milk- shakes were consumed. When researchers took the sugar away from the milkshakes and left the milk fats, the brains didn’t light up with glee nearly as much as they did when the sugar was back in the drink.

Once these and related study findings about sugar and addiction were replicated and confirmed, the floodgates of research opened up exploring the intricacies and implications of this relationship.

  • “The model of sugar bingeing has been used successfully to elicit behavioral and neurochemical signs of dependence: indices of opiate-like withdrawal, increased intake after abstinence, cross-sensitization with drugs of abuse, and the repeated release of dopamine.”
  • “It has been observed that the biological children of alcoholic parents, particularly alcoholic fathers, are at greater risk to have a strong sweet preference and may manifest in some with an eating ”
  • “Research has revealed that sugar and sweet reward can not only substitute to addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attrac- At the neurobiological levels, the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward appear to be more robust than those of cocaine possibly reflecting past selective evolutionary pressures for seeking and taking foods high in sugar and calories.”

This recent research provides the scientific proof for an idea that’s been a cultural rumor since the 1960’s and 1970’s: sugar is a poison. The late Hollywood star Gloria Swanson crusaded on the theme that sugar consumption creates ill health until her death, and then her husband, William Dufty, continued the campaign with a 1975 book, Sugar Blues, in which he wrote: “the difference between sugar addiction and narcotic addiction is largely one of degree. After all, heroin is nothing but a chemical. They take the juice of the poppy and they refine it into opium and then they refine it to morphine and finally to heroin. Sugar is nothing but a chemical. They take the juice of the cane or the beet, and they refine it to molasses and then they refine it to brown sugar and finally to strange white crystals.”

Still another cultural sign that aware people were waking up to the addictive potential of sugar before medical science did came in the 1955 movie, The Man With the Golden Arm, starring Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. For those of you who don’t remember or weren’t born yet, Sinatra played a heroin addict who discovers he is also a sugar addict when he kicks the heroin addiction. In one famous scene after kicking heroin, Sinatra says:

“The most gorgeous day I ever saw. I got a craving from something sweet. You got anything sweet?”

“Sugar,” said the Novak character. “Gimme.”

In response she pours a fountain of sugar into his cupped hands.

Sinatra licks the sugar and demands more.

“How can you?” says the Novak character, making a displeased face.

“I never felt this good in my life,” says Sinatra, ravenously eating more sugar. “I feel like all the things inside me settled into place.”

Other Hollywood films made the same or a similar point. In the 1962 movie, The Days of Wine and Roses, the alcoholic played by Jack Klugman revealed to his friend, played by Jack Lemmon, that he knew his wife was an alcoholic because of her obsession with eating chocolate candy.

Now that we know without scientific doubt and beyond mere cultural rumors that sugar triggers addiction, and that sugar is even more addictive than alcohol or cocaine, what should be done to warn consumers and to protect human health?

The public health policy implications of sugar being named an addictive drug were examined in a 2013 paper in the Journal of Law and Medical Ethics. “What was once a naturally occurring food ingredient is now a highly concentrated food additive. If foods containing artificially high levels of sugar are capable of triggering addictive behaviors, how should policy makers respond? What regulatory steps would be suitable and practical?”

The obvious answer is for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to declare added sugar in all its various forms to   be a highly-addictive substance in need of regulation like any other addictive drug. As you can imagine, such a step will be fanatically resisted by the sugar and processed foods industries, just as Big Tobacco fought with its huge financial resources against the designation of nicotine as an addictive substance.


Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. Lenoir M. Et al. PLoS 2007 Aug 1;2(8):e698.

Sugar can be addictive, Princeton scientist Princeton Univer- sity. Dec. 10, 2008. S22/88/56G31/index.xml?section=topstories

“Rats treat Oreos like cocaine, study suggests.” Eoin O’Carroll. The Christian Science Monitor. Oct. 16,

Animal models of sugar and fat bingeing: relationship to food addic- tion and increased body weight. Avena Et al. Methods Mol Biol. 2012;829:351–65.

Sweet preference, sugar addiction and the familial history of alcohol dependence: shared neural pathways and genes. Fortuna J Psycho- active Drugs. 2010 Jun;42(2):147–51.

Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. SH Ahmed. Et Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2013 Jul;16(4):434–9.

If sugar is addictive…what does it mean for the law? Gearhardt Et. al. J Law Med ethis. 2013 Mar;41 Suppl 1:46–9.

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