Sugar is More Addictive than Cocaine – Absurd Claims Unmasked

Few things have as many friends and enemies as sugar!

In this blog, I’ll look at some claims made in a recent video about sugar, by a famous Youtuber. It’s a long video with various claims about the functioning of sugar mills and mislabeling of packaged foods. While I agree with a few points, I’ll focus on the nutrition-related claims of the video.

This Legal Drug Is Killing You Everyday?

Claim 1: “Sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine or heroin”

You’ll find different variations of this claim on WhatsApp forwards and YouTube videos vilifying sugar. This claim arises from some experiments (paper) on rats.

In these experiments, rats are first hooked on cocaine (via an injection that automatically injects the drug in the rat whenever the animal presses a button in its cage) or sugar. Once dependence is created, rats are deprived of the drug or sugar. Their behaviour is then studied. The intensity of withdrawal-like symptoms and the rat’s desperation to access the drug or the sugar are used to determine the ‘addictiveness’ of cocaine vs sugar.

This is why the indication for sugar being 8 times more addictive than cocaine is dodgy:

  1. These studies are conducted on rats and not humans. Studies done on rodent models are undistinguished predictors of human reaction. These results *may* apply to your pet mouse but are likely to be useless for us, unless they’re replicated in humans.
  2. The design of this experiment is poor. Experts who have criticised this experiment design state that, the rats are kept hungry for an extended period of time before they are given access to sugar. The rats who are well fed respond differently. It seems as if these rats seek sugar out of hunger and not necessarily addiction.
  3. The rat species that were chosen for this experiment show a high affinity for sugar. This is not a representation of an average rat which is generally used for cocaine testing. This makes the results biased

There are other studies that evaluate the cocaine-like ‘addictive’ effect of certain high sugar and high-fat food. They are well critiqued in this excellent research paper by Westwater et al. You can read it here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6

This paper concludes: “Taken together, addictive-like consumption of sugar diverges from drug addiction on both neurobiological and behavioural levels, suggesting a need for great caution in drawing parallels between sugar and drug addiction”.

Comparing sugar with cocaine rings a false alarm that is not rooted in science.

Neither the video nor the description mentioned any research paper to support these claims. Therefore, I’ve tried to find any evidence that could support these claims. And here’s why this evidence is of poor quality and should be ignored.

Claim 2: “Sugar mixed with caffeine makes it 10 times more addictive”

I could not find any evidence to support this claim.

Looking at this logically, if someone says that sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine and caffeine makes sugar 10 times more addictive, then one cup of coffee should be 80 times more addictive than cocaine.

This is absolutely absurd!

Claim 3: “Refined sugar is more dangerous and addictive than traditional sugars like jaggery”

Jaggery is not magic. Like other sugars, it’s also made from sugarcane. You essentially boil sugarcane juice until it leaves behind a solid residue which is jaggery. It is less sweet and retains more calcium, potassium, and iron. It may be slightly better than sugar, but it is not a replacement, especially for diabetic patients.

To understand better, check out this Twitter Space organised by Sandeep Mall with Dr. Rahul Baxi and Ujjwala Baxi, a diabetologist and dietitian respectively. They whey the pros and cons of replacing table sugar with jaggery and honey.

However, this doesn’t explain the claim that jaggery is less addictive. There are no papers to back this. In fact, jaggery has 65%–85% sucrose, the same constituent of other sugars that we use.

Claim 4: “Artificial sweeteners are more dangerous than refined sugar”

This one’s a classic.

The advisories from established professional bodies like the American Heart Association or government agencies, state that artificial sweetener is harmless when consumed in moderation.

A recent 2022 meta-analysis of 17 random control trials concluded that:

“Artificial sweeteners as an intended substitute for sugar appeared to be associated with reductions in body weight and cardiometabolic risk factors, including BMI, percentage of body fat, and IHCL, without evidence of harm”

Link to the paper: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2790045

Having said all of this and after digging out evidence, I can safely conclude that the above-mentioned claims are baseless. While some parts of this video on packaged foods having a lot of refined sugar have my endorsement, most of it is just fear-mongering. This seems especially unethical when this fear-mongering is used to advertise a health insurance aggregator which sponsored the said video.

In the fitness world, there is a trend of portraying a particular food as either a hero or a villain. For instance, green tea becomes a superfood and sugar becomes poison. This is not how nutrition works.

Some years ago, fats and cholesterol were portrayed to be baddies and now it’s sugar. The truth lies somewhere in between. While it is true that there is mislabeling of packaged food, the sugar lobby is funding research studies that the rate of diabetes and metabolic syndrome is on the rise. Yet, sugar as food is not a villain here. It is in fact an imperative component of a balanced diet.

While we can’t change the systematic problems, at a personal level, you can always learn to befriend sugar and manage it as a part of your healthy lifestyle. You can improve your relationship with sugar by understanding your eating habits. You can use creative ways like diet coke or ice creams with artificial sweeteners to satisfy cravings and manage your caloric intake better.

It’s no rocket science, just remember the basics of counting calories and macros. A well-designed diet chart can easily accommodate an occasional ice cream or pastry. You don’t need to give up on jalebi or your morning tea if you learn to adjust other food for the day. Completely avoiding refined sugar will only lead to unhealthy cycles of sugar binging and deprivation.

Sugar is okay. Cocaine? Not so much.

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