If you think about it, addiction doesn’t have any grey areas, because either you’re dependent on something or you’re not. But what addiction does have are stages, some might say.
Meaning, one can be at the tail-end of an addiction and along the way they’ve learned—not mastered—a way to co-exist with it, while others can be in the throes of their habit and be both aware and content with it at the same time.
Then of course there are those who don’t know they’re addicted and don’t want to know.
This happens in the case of sugar addiction more often than people realize, experts say, and although many are aware of eating too much sugar in things like sweetened beverages, pastries and candies, a good number of people aren’t thinking about the hidden sugars in those foods that aren’t necessarily sweet.
Toxic and difficult to avoid
Dr. Robert Lustig, who’s a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California-San Francisco and a well-known crusader against the overuse of sugar, says the addictive white sweet stuff isn't only toxic, but one of the most difficult addictions to avoid.
Sugar, of course, falls into the same accessible and legal category of addictive substances as alcohol, cigarettes and prescription drugs, which makes avoiding these things even more difficult compared to illegal substances, which are more commonly associated with the word “addiction.”
And Lustig says because of this reason and others, our culture has a predisposition to being sugar-addicted for the mere reason that our brains heavily associate it with goodness, enjoyment and satisfaction, which certainly aren’t the brain signals one needs when they’re trying to cut back on something.
"We love it"
“We love it,” said Lusting in a 2012 television interview.
“We go out of our way to find it. And I think one of the reasons evolutionarily is because there are no [foods] on the planet that have fructose that are poisonous to you. It is all good, so when you taste something that’s sweet, it’s an evolutionary Darwinism signal that says this is a safe food. We were born this way,” he said.
In addition, Lustig says that, chemically, there is absolutely no difference between conventional sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, which many people have just recently learned about, thanks to a continued national dialogue that’s been taking place over the course of the last decade or so.
Although high-fructose corn syrup has taken a beating by many people during this dialogue, Lustig says both are equally bad for you and have the same addictive qualities.
And whether you’re consuming sugar or the syrupy additive on a daily basis, it doesn’t really matter from a health-risk perspective.
Additionally, you’ll be equally challenged when it comes to being able to completely remove yourself from wanting, craving and being addicted to sugar.
“But I don’t have a sweet tooth," some might say.
"It doesn’t matter," an expert might reply, for the mere fact that just about every processed food under the big bright yellow sun has either sugar or high-fructose corn syrup in it, which is why many scientists have compared sugar to cocaine in terms of being extremely hard to eliminate.
As addictive as cocaine
In a study published in the medical journal PLOS One, researchers found that not only is sugar just as addictive as cocaine, sugar replacements like saccharin are even more addictive and resemble cocaine dependency.
“Our findings clearly demonstrate that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and addicted individuals,” wrote the researchers.
“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.”
And when it comes to the similarities between cocaine and sugar, in terms of addiction, the line is pretty darn slender.
Dopamine levels dramatically increase in the brain with both substances. Both sugar and cocaine trigger the part of the brain that controls incentives and being rewarded, experts say, and both produce mental and physical withdrawals of very serious proportions.
According to Lustig, the government only did it half right when it set a mandate to lower the amount of fat in foods in order to lower the chance of people getting heart disease, because the cases of heart disease are still extremely high, and most people don’t attribute this to sugar use.
He says the removal of fat in certain foods meant there was an increase in the amount of sugar that we started using, and that had a lot to do with consumers eating too much sugar in recent years.
After fat was removed “heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and death are skyrocketing,” said Lustig. “When you take the fat out of food it tastes like cardboard and the food industry knew that, so they replaced it with sugar.”
Of course some may say Lustig’s war on sugar is a bit over the top and if sugar or high-fructose corn syrup are completely avoided, there will still be the same health problems, like heart disease, metabolic syndrome and obesity to deal.
Others might say that lowering our sugar intake is an absolute must, not only in the foods commonly associated with sugar, but in other foods that are more likely to fall under the sodium umbrella and fall under our radar of overconsumption too.
Lustig and many other experts believe that too much sugar and a fried greasy sandwich, let’s say, will produce the same results. Sugar, fat and salt can all contribute to heart disease and other deadly disorders, so all of us could be at risks, he suggests.