In Depth

Sweet tooth: How sugar became the world's drug of choice

Eating too much sugar can have devastating side effects for its hundreds of millions of 'addicts'

Reaching out for a biscuit or a piece of chocolate to satisfy a craving for 'something sweet' can seem like the most natural thing in the world, but is our love of all things sugary a dangerous addiction rather than an innocent pleasure?

In a lengthy article in The Guardian that's already causing a stir on social media, Gary Taubes makes the case that sugar is ultimately the most destructive drug of all, with eye-opening long-term implications for global health.

Is sugar addictive?

Historically, Taubes says, "the response of entire populations to sugar has been effectively identical to that of children: once people are exposed, they consume as much sugar as they can easily procure."

Like alcohol, tobacco and 'hard drugs', sugar stimulates the brain to release the 'pleasure chemical' dopamine – but the similarities do not end there.

A recent study by the Queensland University of Technology found that dopamine bursts caused by sugar begin to drop off with long-term consumption, The Independent reports.

As less dopamine is released, "people need to consume higher and higher levels of sugar in order to reach the same reward levels and avoid mild states of depression", the same process observed in alcoholics and drug addicts.

However, the research is far from definitive. A 2014 study at Edinburgh University concluded that there was no evidence that the body could become physically dependent on sugar, and that excessive consumption of sugar was a behavioural disorder, similar to a gambling addiction.

Ethical considerations mean that scientists cannot measure how sugar addiction compares to other drugs in an experiment on human subjects. However, a 2013 study conducted on laboratory rats concluded that sugar "can not only [be a] substitute for addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive".

Researchers suggest that this seemingly harmful drive for sweet foods could be linked to "evolutionary pressures for seeking and taking foods high in sugar and calories".

How dangerous is sugar?

Whether or not a sweet tooth should be treated like a drug habit, sugar is linked to an array of health issues which spell trouble for its hundreds of millions of 'addicts'.

The most obvious of these is obesity, but people who eat higher amounts of sweet food also have a higher propensity to develop serious medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high blood sugar.

Nutritionists and health authorities have long recommended that sugar only be consumed in moderation, but, as Taubes argues, the long-term implications of our high-sugar diets are only just beginning to be understood.

"If it takes years or decades, or even generations, for us to get to the point where we display symptoms of metabolic syndrome," he writes. "It's quite possible that even these apparently moderate amounts of sugar will turn out to be too much."

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