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Addictiveness, From Many Angles

Despite mountains of research and tons of opinion, it can seem as if science has barely scratched the surface of the complicated triangular relationship between dopamine, sugar, and its addictiveness (or not). In either case, in the efforts to claim that this is an addictive substance or to deny it, some definitions have been stretched or maybe bent. And the mystery is not so much the sugar itself, although that does present a monumental problem or several. It is inherent in the basic, underlying presumptions and assumptions.

And there lies some shaky ground. In making a case, it is sometimes possible to come to a wrong conclusion based on correct assumptions. It is also possible to reach a correct conclusion based on fallacious assumptions. For instance, it has been argued that sugar is addictive to some people because of the genetic ancestral memory from eons ago, when times were very hard, and the body cherished every stray calorie it was able to glean from nature. So we love ripe berries and honey and other high-caloric sweet foods to the point of becoming pathologically hooked on them.

That might have been a convincing argument for sugar’s addictiveness — except that the Thrifty Gene Hypothesis, as it is known, has been pretty thoroughly discredited (see “Everything You Know About Thrifty Genes Is Wrong,” Parts 1-6, at Childhood Obesity News).

Also, it is not difficult to find references that can be construed as “maybe.” A point could be made that some points have not been made clearly enough. A curious person can find enough references to argue for days, one way or another, that sugar is or is not a drug, or that sugar is or is not an addictive substance.

As previous posts have shown, there are experts who say sugar is addictive; or may under certain circumstances, or to certain people, be addictive. There are experts who say it is a drug; or acts like a drug; or can be as addictive as a drug; or “may as well be” a drug.

The “as if” position, that sugar certainly acts as if it were a drug, can become tiring because there is wiggle room. It’s like common-law marriage — not really sanctified, but heck, if those two have been at it for seven years and don’t plan to separate, society “may as well” go ahead and grant them the status. But “as if” and wiggle room are not supposed to be what science is about.

Of course, science has been applied. Back in 2007, a study said this:

[R]ats with intermittent access to food and a sugar solution can show both a constellation of behaviors and parallel brain changes that are characteristic of rats that voluntarily self-administer addictive drugs. In the aggregate, this is evidence that sugar can be addictive.

The experts who say that sugar is addictive are very certain of their stance, and it is definitely worth inquiring into the reasons behind their very strong emotions. The experts who deny that sugar is addictive are also very certain, and maybe it is worth taking a closer look at why they feel (or purport to feel) so strongly about it. But isn’t this supposed to be about science? How does feeling enter into it at all? How do we not have a firm, scientific consensus that is beyond contention?

People feel very strongly about the addictiveness (or not) of sugar. What makes them so sure? Personal experience, for one thing. A random anonymous internet person will write something like, “When I was addicted to sugar, nothing tasted as good if it didn’t have sugar. It was as though my tongue needed sugar in every single food in order to enjoy it.”

Quite a few healers and institutions stand ready to supply a list of possible symptoms. But all the symptoms of sugar deprivation do not apply to everyone. There might be cravings capable of satisfaction. Another person may have intense cravings that are not able to be quelled by consuming some sweets, but only become even more intense.

There is the difficulty (or impossibility) of self-control, which can feel like being taken over by an alien personality. That personality is conversationally very limited and only knows a few phrases, like, “Just one more,” “Just a drop more,” “Just another handful,” and so on.

To embroider on that concept: In a British pub, a person ordering another drink says “Same again.” When the sugar-driven entity possesses a person, it has a different slogan: “Same again and more and again and again.” To put it another way, the sugar-saturated individual expresses the typical sign of addiction: increased tolerance. They need progressively more to get the same effect.

Written by Pat Hartman. First published March 8, 2024.


“Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake,”, May 2007.
“Is Sugar Addictive? Why Sugar Can Be Considered a Drug,”, July 29, 2023.

Image Copyright: Stuart Smith/CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED


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