[Article] Sugar: Unconscious Addiction

Muhammad Naufal Al Aziz

Recently there is something hits my head quite hard. At the grocery store, we could find a group of people offering glucose test, we could find so many products that have “diabetes” as it’s branding. For all I know, diabetes and glucose are hardwired to sugar. It makes me wonder why we are living under a terror by eating such a harmless spice. As much as we hate to admit it, we all know that having too much sugar is bad for our health, yet we still consume a lot of it. So, why do we love sugar?

In the early 1970s, researchers gather a group of one hundred babies and giving them three different tastes of a harmless object; sweet, sour, and bitter. After the babies taking the sweet one, they show a positive facial expression such as smiling and licking their lips. The two other solutions show contradictive responses from the first one, the babies pursed their lips, wrinkled their noses, and stuck out their tongues. The study shows that even newborns and infants already have a natural preference for sweet tastes. This system of our body helps us to distinct foods. Sweet taste signal there is lots of calories we need to survive, as we know that glucose is the main source of energy for our cells. On the other hand, sour and bitter signal that we should avoid something, such as rotten food or spoiled milk. So, it is safe to say that we are bound to love sugar, luckily sugar is easy to find these days than ever before.

Unlike today, back then sugar was considered as an exotic spice. For our ancestors, finding sugar was not so easy. It can only be obtained from fruits which only available at harvest time, and honey was hard to access. Sugarcane plantations were first established in Brazil at 16th century and by following centuries the sugar consumption increased by 1.500%. Now sugar is in the majority of processed foods we eat, that is because it is cheap and tastes good. But, some scientists believe that sugar can be as bad as smoking and drinking alcohol.

Our body can understand two simple sugars (glucose and fructose) which can be found in fruits, some vegetables, and table sugar. Because of our cells love glucose as to fulfill the need of energy, when it enters our body, our pancreas starts producing insulin and then our brain understands that we are metabolizing, that is why we feel less-hungry. Fructose act differently, it can only be metabolized by the liver, so it leaves more fatty calories for us to keep. Furthermore, if fructose enters our body without the goodness of fiber in fruit or vegetables, it might disturb hormone production in our brain which can mislead the feeling of being full. Plus, when sugar hits the sweetness receptors in our tongue, they also trigger the production of dopamine inside our brain which can make us feel happy.

Sugar creates this feedback loop inside our body; when we eat it we still feel hungry, and eating more of it feels so good. We know that this cycle of sugar is bad for ourselves; our liver can process six to nine teaspoons of sugar each day. But average people nowadays consume about 22 teaspoons a day. That explains why our country is one of five most diabetic countries according to International Diabetes Federation by November 2014.

Because of our overconsumption, sugar contributes to the intake of excess calories which causes weight gain. Higher consumption of fructose has been linked to the obesity epidemic, which can increase the risk of having type-2 diabetes and heart disease. But we cannot control this response that our brain and body give, that is why we love sugar. It keeps activating our brain’s reward system, which makes this behavior become an addiction. In an established animal model, rats are given sugar water and food. After a month on this feeding schedule, the researchers take out the sugar water and the rats display behaviors similar to those seen in drug abuse. They are looking and craving for the sugar, some show withdrawals or even depression when it was not there. The studies show and even compare the addiction of sugar with drugs addiction because of they are share same symptoms. Basically, we are not addicted to the sugar itself, it was our brain’s reward system that craving to be stimulated. But we should remember that those does not the only things that can trigger our brain’s reward system such as exercising, gambling, or delicious foods. But we do not necessarily mean we are addicted to those things, we just find them pleasurable.


  1. My own experiences
  2. A history of sugar – the food nobody needs, but everyone craves (https://theconversation.com/a-history-of-sugar-the-food-nobody-needs-but-everyone-craves-49823)
  3. Steiner, J.E. Facial Expressions of the Neonate Infant Indication the Hedonics of Food Related Chemical Stimuli in Weiffenbach, J. M. (Ed.). (1977). Taste and development: The genesis of sweet preference. US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health.
  4. Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake.Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20-39.

Word Count: 762

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