Latest developments in causes and treatments



The Weirdness of Sugar Exceptionalism

Just to establish that we are not talking about little pieces of bent wire that hold papers together, let’s resort to grade-school tradition and start with the dictionary definition of “staple“:

[…] a commodity for which the demand is constant… something having widespread use or appeal… [U]sed, needed, or enjoyed constantly usually by many individuals… [P]roduced regularly or in large quantities… [T]he sustaining or principal element…

“The staples” are the items which, according to generations of Home Economics teachers, every well-run household ought to keep in stock and available at all times. Flour, sugar, salt, shortening/lard/oil, eggs, coffee, baking powder, rice, potatoes, beans, vinegar… the list might vary according to individual preference or ethnicity, but most of the items considered essential have, by some authority at some time and in some place, also been branded as deadly.

We can hop online and read about why people, or at least some people, must assiduously avoid any of those substances. Almost every “staple” has been identified, by some expert somewhere, as a potential killer or at least as a potential addictor.

Sugar is especially problematic because technically, any human could theoretically live a long and robust life without ever ingesting so much as one teaspoon of the stuff. And yet, it is found within almost every product on offer in the average grocery store. Not because it belongs there. Not because nature put it there. No, it is gratuitously, one might even say on a whim, added to just about everything we are expected to eat.

Jed Diamond, Ph.D., is quoted:

[W]hether we call something a drug or food is often arbitrary.

That was written in the course of discussing Dr. Andrew Weil’s book, From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know About Mind Altering Drugs. Of course often, one characteristic of a mind-altering drug is that it also affects the body, and usually not in a beneficial way. Weil wrote, “We recognize heroin as a drug. It is a white powder that in small doses produces big changes in the body and mind.” But sugar? Not a whisper. Unblemished as the new-fallen snow.

Diamond mentions the infamous lab tests in which rats found a notorious brand of snack food just as addictive as cocaine and morphine. He remarks that “eating cookies activated more neurons in the brain’s ‘pleasure center’ than exposure to drugs of abuse,” and adds the interesting detail that a Dutch official calls sugar “the most dangerous drug of the times”:

Paul van der Velpen, the head of Amsterdam’s health service […] where the sale of cannabis is legalized, wants to see sugar tightly regulated. “Just like alcohol and tobacco, sugar is actually a drug. The use of sugar should be discouraged. And users should be made aware of the dangers.”

There are safeguards around who can buy poisons like arsenic, and even to prevent people from getting their hands on precursor substances they might use in-bathroom laboratories to cook up drugs of abuse. In many places, cigarette packages are festooned with repulsive photos of possible consequences.

But sugar? Nary a whisper. Why isn’t all candy sold with warning labels? Is it a denial of responsibility for the population’s welfare? Or craven capitulation to the food industry’s demands? Is it just flat-out hypocrisy?

We realize that, in order to have a society, there are certain things we ought not to tolerate. Like approaching a stranger and doing them violence. It’s an action civilized people ought not to tolerate. It’s evil and unacceptable. We will simply not put up with that kind of behavior.

And yet, to maintain a society, we also must carve out exceptions. If somebody wears a uniform and a badge, it is perfectly acceptable for that functionary to approach a stranger and physically restrain and even attack them with complete justification, because a few minutes ago, or even several years ago, that person once approached a stranger and did them violence.

Sugar’s public image is mild, innocent and yes, sweet. When an adult confesses to being a sugar addict, we think it’s kind of cute. The tricks that children will get up to, in the service of their addiction, are sometimes rather adorable. Admittedly, sugar is bad for them. But any adult who seriously suggested criminalizing the substance and prosecuting its users would likely be regarded as a dangerous lunatic.

Sugar is so basic, so ubiquitous, it would seem that whatever is going on with that substance ought to also be applicable in studying addiction wherever and whenever it is found. But people can’t even decide whether it’s a drug. How about this venerable (corny) saying and an example of folk wisdom:

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

Why is sugar perceived as belonging to a different class, another order of being? Why is the idea of calling it a drug regarded with horror? Why does sugar get a pass? Why is it not a controlled substance? When society is confronted each and every day with the evidence of sugar’s potential for harm, why is it not listed up there with the rest of the DEA’s Schedule 1 drugs as a menace to civilized existence?

How honest or meaningful can any discussion about addiction be, when the entire society conspires to ignore the 800-pound duck in the room?

Written by Pat Hartman. First published March 15, 2024.


“Staple,”, undated
“Are Fat, Sugar, and Salt the New Heroin, Meth, and Cocaine?,”, September 22, 2020.

Image Copyright: Department of Health (Ireland)/CC BY 2.0 DEED


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *