Thursday, August 02, 2007

Why sugar is so damn addictive

It's a badly kept secret that I am quite a coke addict - the liquid stuff, not the powdered stuff. Now I see that PLoS One has publihsed a study that explains why stuff like that is so damn addictive.

Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward by Magalie Lenoir, Fuschia Serre, Lauriane Cantin, and Serge H. Ahmed.


Refined sugars (e.g., sucrose, fructose) were absent in the diet of most people until very recently in human history. Today overconsumption of diets rich in sugars contributes together with other factors to drive the current obesity epidemic. Overconsumption of sugar-dense foods or beverages is initially motivated by the pleasure of sweet taste and is often compared to drug addiction. Though there are many biological commonalities between sweetened diets and drugs of abuse, the addictive potential of the former relative to the latter is currently unknown.

Methodology/Principal findings

Here we report that when rats were allowed to choose mutually-exclusively between water sweetened with saccharin–an intense calorie-free sweetener–and intravenous cocaine–a highly addictive and harmful substance–the large majority of animals (94%) preferred the sweet taste of saccharin. The preference for saccharin was not attributable to its unnatural ability to induce sweetness without calories because the same preference was also observed with sucrose, a natural sugar. Finally, the preference for saccharin was not surmountable by increasing doses of cocaine and was observed despite either cocaine intoxication, sensitization or intake escalation–the latter being a hallmark of drug addiction.


Our findings clearly demonstrate that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and -addicted individuals. We speculate that the addictive potential of intense sweetness results from an inborn hypersensitivity to sweet tastants. In most mammals, including rats and 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.

Of course, the sweetness in the experiment probably is probably higher than the sweetness in anything that you can buy (except perhaps candyfloss), and as the article makes clear, there might be some inter-specific differences.

At first glance, the discovery that intense sweetness surpasses intravenous cocaine is difficult to conciliate with previous empirical and theoretical research on cocaine addiction. First, our findings seem to run counter to seminal research in monkeys showing that the large majority of individuals prefer high doses of intravenous cocaine over dry food, regardless of the amount of food available [40], [41] and even despite severe weight loss [42]. However, in most previous studies, except one [43], the food option contained no or only modest concentrations of sweet tastants, which probably explains why it was neglected in favor of high doses of cocaine. In addition, in those studies that employed lightly sweetened food pellets [41], the amount of effort required to obtain the food option was ten times higher than to obtain cocaine, thereby favoring drug choices. However, in one choice study, all monkeys clearly preferred, ceteris paribus, the highest dose of cocaine over a 1-g sucrose pellet [43]. The discrepancy between this latter study and the present study may suggest either that sweetened beverages are more rewarding than sweetened dry-foods (which may induce thirst in addition to reward) and/or that one 1-g sucrose pellet is not enough to surmount the rewarding effects of the highest doses of cocaine. Finally, one cannot rule out the possibility that this discrepancy could also reflect an inter-specific gap between rodents and primates, the latter being hypothetically more susceptible to cocaine reward than the former. Future research is needed to tease apart these different hypotheses. Nevertheless, the present study clearly demonstrates in rats–an animal species that readily self-administer cocaine and that develops most of the signs of addiction following extended drug access [34]–[36]–that the reward value of cocaine is bounded and does not surpass taste sweetness–a sensory-driven reward.

In other words, it might be that primates get more out of cocaine than sweeteners.

No matter what, this is an interesting article, describing some interesting findings. Hopefully others will follow up on this, and try to confirm the results of this study. If nothing else, then such findings might create some news approaches to stopping drug addictions.

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Blogger ERV said...

For a time in college, I broke myself of my sugar addiction.

Ive fallen off the wagon.

But at the same time, you only live once, and I run +5 miles a day, plus lift weights, so Im gonna eat the strawberry pie sitting in the fridge.

Mmmmmmmmmmm... Moms pie... **drool**

August 03, 2007 2:10 AM  

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