You might have read something lately about Sugar being 8 times as addictive as cocaine. This piece of information probably didn’t do too much for you unless you are already anti sugar. Considering everyone has eaten sugar at some point, how could this be alarming? I mean, logically if Sugar was 8 times as addictive as cocaine, this statement would feel either entirely obvious or totally unrealistic. That is- for most of us it sounds unrealistic, but If you’ve stabbed someone in the past 6 months for a piece of cake, then the information comes with little surprise.
And what does that mean 8 times as addictive? Do you get hooked 8 times faster? Are the withdrawal symptoms 8 times worse? Would you kill 8 people to get some sugar, but only kill 1 person to get cocaine?
Well, a study from 2007 presented rats with the chance to choose either a sweetened water solution or a cocaine water solution 8 times a day. They almost always picked the sweetened water. Other studies have shown that Rats, even when already addicted to cocaine, will quickly forget about the cocaine and work much harder to get sugar, even when it means walking over a panel that will repeatedly shock them.
But what are the implications for humans? And should you even care? If you were experiencing sugar addiction, you’d surely know it by now, right?
Several recreational substances exist in nature without needing much processing, like dried tobacco leaves, beer from fermented barley, or even the sap from the opium poppy plant. The closer you remain to the natural state of these things, the less dangerous and problematic they are. While smoking tobacco in any form is of course harmful to your health, it usually takes continuous use over a long period of time for it to truly damage you. It’s very rare that someone would drink beer or wine to the point that they get alcohol poisoning or become seriously addicted to alcohol. You could even argue that opium was never a problem in human populations until it was conceived of as a problem by british colonial policy makers. Italian aristocrat and actor Dado Ruspoli had supposedly smoked opium for over 45 years without it having severe repercussions on his life.
Substances like this only become truly hazardous to your health and terribly addictive when you extensively refine them. Around 1810, morphine was derived from opium and was available in the US from the mid 1850’s to be used as a painkiller by doctors. Due to injuries sustained during the Civil War, many soldiers were exposed to morphine, and suddenly you had tens of thousands of morphine addicts. Then in 1874, Heroin which is derived from morphine, was marketed as morphine’s non addictive substitute and since then, the heroin addict has been ever present in American culture.
Another example is the very dangerous and very addictive cocaine, which is also a product of refinement. The refinement of coca leaves. These leaves had been chewed by farmers in the Andes for hundreds of years for a boost in energy, and the worst they got from constant chewing of the leaves was maybe bad teeth.
Alcohol too doesn’t get that bad until you refine it, or distill it. People who have become alcoholics will skip the weaker fermented alcohols like beer, wine or cider and stick to the hard distilled stuff like Whiskey, Gin and Vodka. Have a couple beers and you might be kind of a jerk, but for most people it’s not until they start doing shots that they’ll make a real ass of themselves, black out or end up in the hospital.
In each of these examples, the result of refinement is a higher concentration of a particular ingredient that will have an effect on your brain’s reward system. What happens is the substance either occupies your dopamine receptors or causes dopamine to be released and it makes you feel good. That is- you get more bang for your buck. Distilled alcohol means you get drunker for a lot less liquid, and cocaine and heroin give you way more of the feel good effects from just a tiny bit of the substance.
This brings us to sugar, another substance which also affects your brain’s dopamine system, and is also the result of a refining process. With sugar, you’re getting more sweet for your buck. And compared to other tastes, sweet activates your reward center even more- that is, evolution programmed us to seek sweet foods in particular. One of the reasons is that sweet foods in nature are very rarely poisonous.
Another fun thing about sugar is that it actually has a small opiate like effect. When newborns are to be circumcised, they are given a pacifier dipped in something called “sweet ease”- which is just a concentrated sugar solution. The sugar activates the endogenous opioid system, providing enough analgesia for the baby that the procedure can be completed without too much fuss.
And then, how much something is refined should give you an idea of how intense you can expect the effects to be. For example, 100 kilograms of coca leaves will get you about 300 – 1200 grams of cocaine. That is – the resulting material is about 100 times stronger than what you started with. When it comes to sugar, for a good yielding sugarcane, about half the weight of one stalk is juice, and 20% of that juice is actual sugar. So the result of the refinement process is a material that’s around 10 times sweeter than what you started with.
The average American consumes about 82 grams of sugar per day. To naturally consume this much sugar, they would have to chew through about 2 lbs of sugarcane. This is 2 lbs of fiber rich plant material that our bodies would normally expect to come along with all that sweetness. The fiber in there slows the rate at which the sugar is released into your system, so without the fiber the sugar is absorbed very rapidly. This is another parallel to cocaine.
Your body could probably handle chewing through a 100 grams of coca leaves because the active ingredient is released very slowly into your system… However if you slam that amount of active ingredient instantaneously via your right nostril then it’s gonna be a shock to your body.
OK, so sugar has some parallels to narcotics, but how is it actually addictive? In animals at least, sugar addiction has been thoroughly proven. However, establishing addiction in people is a little different. According to the APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 3 of the following 7 criteria need to be met.
5 of these criteria are considered psychological and they are: Bingeing on the substance, a desire to quit using the substance, craving or seeking the substance, the substance interfering with your daily life, and continued use of the substance despite negative consequences. The other two criteria are considered physiological, which makes them the most important in establishing addiction. They are Tolerance and Withdrawal.
Tolerance is easier to establish objectively since you can use neuro imaging to actually see it. What’s happening in the brain when you become tolerant to something is that the dopamine receptors in your brain get downregulated, so more dopamine is necessary to get the same effect – essentially you need more of the substance to get the same amount of pleasure. If you take a look at a cocaine addicts brain, you can see that the cocaine has clearly downregulated their dopamine receptors. Then, if you look at the brain of someone who frequently over consumes sugar, you see the exact same thing in their brain. This is tolerance.
And what about withdrawal? People who try to quit sugar consistently report symptoms like lightheadedness, headaches, anxiety, mood swings, muscle aches, general fatigue, and physical tremors or “the shakes”. If you’ve seen Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize me!” you may remember this scene: “I was feeling bad, in the car. Feeling like shit. Started eating – feel great. Feel really good now. I feel so good it’s crazy.” So what’s happening here is he’s having withdrawal symptoms until he gets the food again. And what is almost every one of McDonald’s products loaded with? Sugar, or High fructose corn syrup which is chemically almost identical to sugar. In this documentary “That Sugar Film” Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau goes on an experimental high sugar diet for 30 days. Despite consuming the same amount of calories and just upping his sugar intake, in these 30 days alone he gained 8.5 kilograms (19 lbs) And by the 18th day he already had developed fatty liver disease. When he finally goes off the diet, he talks about his withdrawal symptoms: “Frankly, it didn’t feel that different from giving up cigarettes. I had headaches, I was moody, and my sleep patterns were terrible. Woke up, very early, and as soon as I was awake I kind of.. I’m craving sugar.”
As paracelsus said, “the dose makes the poison.” So if you’re not someone who’s eating candy or drinking soda on a regular basis, you might not be worried about all of this. However, the real issue is that a lot of people could be over dosing on sugar without even realizing it. Ever since the low fat craze, our food supply has become more and more overrun with added sugars and now 80% of our food has sugar added to it. One of the reasons is that if you take the fat out of something, it tastes like garbage. If you’re a food company looking to maximize your profit, your product needs to appeal health conscious consumers and it needs to taste good. So, you take the fat out of the product so you can market it as low fat and then you put sugar in where the fat was so it still tastes good.
In fact, food companies found out that you can make almost anything taste better by putting some sugar in it. The “Bliss Point” is a term the food industry uses to describe the point at which a product is most likeable for the majority of consumers. And the majority of consumers like more sugar than less. So the Bliss Point is going to be the point at which the maximum amount of sugar has been added before the product becomes too sweet. This includes anything from bread to pizza sauce to salad dressing.
Sugar used to be way more expensive than it is nowadays – way back in 1319 it sold for about 50 dollars a pound, but as sugar cane and sugar beet cultivation improved and the refinement process became more advanced, sugar became significantly cheaper. Then things got really cheap with the advent of high fructose corn syrup, which again is almost identical to sugar. Because of the way subsidies are managed in the United States, we end up with a massive amount of corn. In 2010, 32 percent of the world’s corn supply, 63.9 billion dollars worth, came from US farmers. That’s a lot of corn. No wonder this corn derived sweetener is in almost everything.
High fructose corn syrup and sugar have built up a bad reputation over time, but there’s 54 other names for sugar that the food industry can use to have us feeling better about their products while keeping the sugar in.
This is how even the more health conscious people can end up consuming more than twice the daily recommended intake of sugar without even knowing it.
And now we have the question: are you addicted to sugar? If you’re like most people, you’re fulfilling your cravings at almost every meal without even knowing it, so how could you tell? With something like caffeine, you can take a pretty good guess about whether or not you have some dependence on it. You can just go without a coffee for a while and see how you feel. However, with sugar, it will take some deliberation and careful label reading to properly cut it out from your diet.
But I really recommend you do trying cutting it out so you can know how you feel without it. It’s important to know whether or not you are dependent on this stuff, because as I’ll discuss in my next video, sugar has some particularly negative effects on your health.
“Disease doesn’t happen with one meal, but it happens with a thousand. But that’s what we have because now sugar is with EVERY meal.”