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Is sugar as addictive as cocaine or heroin?

I would actually put a decent bit of coin on people still buying shed loads of processed sugar in different foods even if there were ads on the tv telling people processed sugar is highly toxic and the issues it slowly causes. Be an interesting experiment as its scientificly stated its as addictive as coke and heroin

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I’ve seen this claim floating around and thought it would be a good one for us to examine. I believe this was the original study that sparked the debate:

Please be sure to add references to back up your argument and as always we’ll award some Fact Finder badges to contributions to the conversation.


Some more on the matter …

If your concern is that you will develop a physiological dependence on sugar, you needn’t worry. That kind of addiction, like one might have to heroin, is simply not going to happen. But there are other ways to think about addiction that could apply to sugar. The current (Fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders includes what it calls “substance use disorder,” which is its version of addiction. Even if it’s a “severe” case, to be diagnosed with that disorder you don’t need to show tolerance or withdrawal. Those are merely two among the 11 symptoms that would count toward a diagnosis. Other symptoms that more easily map onto sugar use include having a strong desire or craving to consume it, consuming more of it than you intend, having persistent unsuccessful attempts to cut down on it, and continuing to use it even though it’s causing you problems.

… goes on to talk about ‘addiction’ - and finally:

So why do I care? As a health psychologist, I often see people choose unnecessary and unpleasant diets based on unsubstantiated claims. Sweeping statements that vilify entire food groups (or specific foods) lead to eating rules that can backfire into overeating the forbidden foods or can become unhealthy obsessions, occupying valuable mental space and leading to self-shaming and other miseries.

There’s nothing wrong with including sugar in your sensible ‘everything in moderation’ eating plan. But I’d avoid the heroin.

The NIH has the following entry;

We find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviours, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar. These behaviours likely arise from intermittent access to sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neurochemical effects of sugar.

… but yet:

From an evolutionary perspective, it is in the best interest of humans to have an inherent desire for food for survival. However, this desire may go awry, and certain people, including some obese and bulimic patients in particular, may develop an unhealthy dependence on palatable food that interferes with well-being. The concept of “food addiction” materialized in the diet industry on the basis of subjective reports, clinical accounts and case studies described in self-help books. The rise in obesity, coupled with the emergence of scientific findings of parallels between drugs of abuse and palatable foods has given credibility to this idea. The reviewed evidence supports the theory that, in some circumstances, intermittent access to sugar can lead to behavior and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of a substance of abuse. According to the evidence in rats, intermittent access to sugar and chow is capable of producing a “dependency”. This was operationally defined by tests for bingeing, withdrawal, craving and cross-sensitization to amphetamine and alcohol. The correspondence to some people with binge eating disorder or bulimia is striking, but whether or not it is a good idea to call this a “food addiction” in people is both a scientific and societal question that has yet to be answered. What this review demonstrates is that rats 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 aggregrate, this is evidence that sugar can be addictive.

The curious terms ‘addiction’ and ‘abuse’ …

“hedonic mechanisms” indeed :rofl::rofl::rofl:

Finally, there is strong evidence of the existence of sugar addiction, both at preclinical and clinical level. Our model has demonstrated that five out of eleven criteria for SUD are met, specifically: use of larger amounts and for longer than intended, craving, hazardous use, tolerance, and withdrawal. From an evolutionary perspective, we must consider addiction as a normal trait that permitted humans to survive primitive conditions when food was scarce. As we evolved culturally, the neural circuits involved in addictive behaviors became dysfunctional and instead of helping us survive they are in fact compromising our health. From a revolutionary perspective, understanding the molecular, and neurological/psychological intricacies of addiction (sugar, drugs of abuse) will permit the discovery of new therapies (pharmacological and non-pharmacological) and possible management of at least one crucial factor in the occurrence of obesity.

… and then this one, a little out of left field where there are clearly some people with a good sense of humour:

Sugar has been as hazardous to public health as big tobacco.

… and other ‘interesting statements’ …


I wouldn’t say it is additive anymore than say salt, fats or other tastes sensations which lead to food cravings…especially when combined to stimulate the taste and olfactory sensors.

The processed/manufactured food industry has been very good at making products which have a sweet spot (apologies for the pun) in relation to the amounts of sugar, fat and salts. They are able to twig recipes to ensure that ones taste buds salivate and create a desire at an anticipation of its consumption. This desire is not an addiction as ones body does not go through a withdrawal when it is not consumed.

Excessive sugar consumption can have physical and biochemical affects in the body…

none of which would be classed as an addiction.

The only addiction I can see is that of the processed/manufactured food industry. They are addicted to its excessive use to create products which are more inviting from a taste viewpoint in order to maximise the sale of their products (and profits).


I wasn’t able to view the whole article at that site, but this appears to be the same article, and ‘in the clear’, for me anyway …


One of the themes that ‘it seemed to me’ was just what people saw as an addiction, both physical and psychological and also associated behaviour, with ‘substance abuse’ appearing to muddy the waters a little. It almost seemed like defining addiction in a rigorous sense was a little outside of our current understanding - by using ‘criteria’ and ‘associated behaviour’ and observed comparative responses - we seem to know a collection of things that we associate with addiction and if we tick enough boxes we pass the diagnosis, but the plethora of papers and opinions indicate it is ongoing work - and thank goodness for people who pry away at this stuff trying to figure it out even if it confuses the cr*p out of people like me !!!

Some of the things I noted were:

  • one can have an addiction (or lets say a ‘latent addiction’) without pursuing it. For me that would be nicotine, which I slammed the door on long ago, but it’s still behind the door …
  • one can abuse the use of a substance without being addicted. Binge drinking could be an example of this, I’ve seen people who don’t drink for a month then go on a total bender … or people who smoke or take drugs socially but not daily or even weekly.
  • addiction can be to things non-food/smoke/snort - like gambling. ‘don’t eat the chips!!’ - maybe that’s an addiction to a feeling - body chemicals/etc like adrenaline, endorphin, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine?
  • is obsessive behaviour an addiction? if not, is our group of addiction tick boxes too restrictive?
  • one article talked of evolution and the perception of sugar addiction, which was very interesting when you look at the balance of foods available to our ancient forebears and the plethora of good foods on our shelves today … are we programmed in our DNA to make the most of the hard to get stuff, which these days is not hard to get …

Probably straying a little OT - but the summary of my rambling is that labelling things seems so important - labelling can be good - sometimes I think we distinguish more than we group, sometimes that might work, other times not … but when there is a big perceived problem that it is perceived we need to solve, everything associated with it seems to need a label so we can understand it. Not sure that is always helpful :rofl:


Others have gone into the question of what is an addiction and if a food like white sugar can be called that. I want to look at this another way. Why do @davo and some others take particular exception to white sugar?

You can sweeten your food with many substances that are a mix of sugars and various impurities that give colour and flavour. You might use brown sugar, raw sugar, honey, rice syrup, or coconut sugar. All of these put your blood sugar up and are a problem for diabetics. All have very similar kilojoule density and will help you gain weight if you eat more kilojoules than you use up. Obesity is a major risk factor for both diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

There is no doubt in my mind that excess sugar consumption is a serious health problem in Australia and much of the rich world and that many of us would be better off eating less of it. But as many studies have shown we are genetically programmed to enjoy high kilojoule foods like sugars and fats. This made sense when we were hunter-gatherers who spent much of their lives struggling not to starve. Our bodies have not caught up with the cheap and plentiful supply of such foods today. But what has all this got to do particularly with white sugar?

I think we would all agree that we desire to eat well. Nobody will say to you “I just look forward to polluting my body with large amounts of crap food so that I can have a lower quality of life and die young”. Whether we can achieve our desire is another matter. Those who want us to give up white sugar tell us to do it for the sake of our health but so does every other message that you get about good diet. The trouble is there are so many messages out there it would be impossible to adopt them all and in fact some are quite contradictory.

It comes to this, if you want people to adopt a particular eating habit you have to show that it is worthwhile and that requires you give specific reasons for the benefits of your recommendation.

So @davo how about your reasons for why white sugar is so bad? What problems does it cause that (say) raw sugar does not and how do you know this to be true?

By all means give us references if you think others can explain it better but please can we have some evidence why, we already know you believe it is more healthy but so does every other person who recommends for or against some food.


True, no one is likely to say it, but actions speak louder than words! Just look at all the people who consume Mcjunk food etc every day, washed down by litres of fizzy sugary liquids.


… go Non-Centrifugal they say? Uluru Gold for the win? is the rest just white, or white with molasses? Does the Panela Monitor hold the answers?

… these and other important questions …


No mention if the colour of the sugar?


Thanks for the contributions here everyone, I’ve awarded some badges accordingly. When we’re dealing with the term ‘addictive’, it can be easy to wander down some technical paths relating to science or psychology, and food items as an addiction is an interesting topic. However, the idea that walking down to the local supermarket and picking up some ice cream is the same as grabbing a tub of heroin or cocaine is not a helpful analogy.


I realise I’m late to the show, but I don’t think anyone has mentioned the difference between addiction and dependency.

For many years I was on an extremely powerful painkiller. If I suddenly stopped taking it, I would have experienced extreme withdrawal symptoms as my body had become dependent on it. Instead, I had to go through a seven day hospitalisation when I changed medications (and then eventually took myself gradually off the replacement).

Addiction is more about mind that body. An addict relies upon a substance for day-to-day function to such an extent that they will do harm to themselves and others to obtain it, or act irrationally.

I have been addicted to nicotine - or more generally, to smoking. Was that as bad as a heroin or cocaine addiction? Impossible to say, as I have avoided recreational use of those drugs and their analogues.

I would argue that an addiction depends upon the addict. Many people use cocaine or heroin recreationally without becoming addicted, while many people are seemingly addicted to eating. Addiction is in the mind.


The SBS has a documentary tonight regarding “Big Sugar” and their behaviour tilted “The Sugar Conspiracy”.

It starts at 8:40 PM and finishes at 10:25 PM.


Heroin and ICE can and do cause changes in the brain, so its not necessarily all in the mind. Each of us has different responses to drugs. For example… I get awful sinus issues and nothing works except zyrtec. The problem is that zyrtec can also make a person drowsy. In my case, a half a zyrtec knocks me about for at least 24 hours and sometimes longer. Other people barely notice they have taken it.

Interesting article on WebMD


Hope that lands in catchup… I was too busy enjoying Victoria and Abdul last night (Netflix)

General comment: I’ve been a sugar “addict” but have never had any issues with not having it. It doesn’t cause withdrawal if I dont have any, though I do get carb cravings. ON the other hand I have also been a nicotine addict and thats a whole different ballgame. Then again… I was able to quit cold turkey 11 years ago, and did not have any withdrawal symptoms (that I noticed).

The thing about addiction is that an addict has to want to stop using their drug of choice… merely knowing its bad for them is never enough.


As do coffee and sugar. Heroin and ICE affect neuro-transmitters and neuro-receptors - so do most things we eat, drink or or think!

Again, it’s a question of addiction vs. dependence - and while both involve chemical signals generated in the brain they are very different things. Just ask someone who’s addicted to gambling, vs. someone who ‘has the occasional flutter’.

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3 posts were split to a new topic: Colloidal silver

Come on now. I never yet saw anyone in extreme withdrawal from coffee or sugar. Heroin and ICE, however, yes, I have seen that. I also dont think anyone committed crimes in an effort to get more money to pay for their sugar or coffee habit. I doubt that it would happen, if both were taken off the market. There are alternatives.


I have seen with caffeine…my other half when the morning fix has not been received.

It is not about coffee withdrawal, but more overly about caffeine withdrawal. While may not appear as severe as that from narcotics, it is real and can last up to a week…

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I used to find that I would get dreadful headaches when withdrawing from caffeine. But its really not in the same class as those other drugs we are talking about here. Nor is sugar :slight_smile:

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