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Why is sugar so addictive?

Sweet food can prompt a rush of dopamine, the brain's feel-good chemical. But too much of a good thing can be bad.
Why is sugar so addictive?
Posted at 9:25 PM, Mar 15, 2023

A bite of sugar can bring a rush of positive sensations. Those feelings are sparked by a chemical called dopamine. 

The so-called "feel good hormone" thrives on a reward system in the brain, when someone eats sweets, has a cocktail or even wins a game — dopamine is released. But too much of a good thing, can be bad — and that includes sugar. 

The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends eating no more than 12 teaspoons of added sugars a day.

The average American consumes about 17 teaspoons. If you only have one sugary snack or beverage a day? That one 12-ounce can of soda has more than 10 teaspoons of added sugars.

A specific brand of chocolate bar, a Three Musketeers candy bar, has nearly 10 teaspoons. And a certain brand of yogurt — Fage with honey — has about seven teaspoons of added sugars.

Reading labels can make a difference. But those labels may not always identify sugar directly.

Research from the University of California San Francisco says sugar goes by at least 61 names. The most common include sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and barley malt. The same research says it’s added to 74% of packaged foods.

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The reward our brain reads from a sugar rush never wanes. 

Dopamine also plays a role in memory building. So the more sugar you consume, the more strongly your brain connects sugar to reward, and that means more cravings. 

That sweet addiction can lead to souring health. The CDC links sugar addiction to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Some parts of the world are taking a unique approach to fight that. Chile, the United Kingdom and Mexico have all imposed a sugary drink tax. In the U.S. there’s no federal sugary drink tax. A one and a half cents per ounce tax was introduced in Rhode Island’s 2022 legislative session, but it didn’t pass. Currently no states have adopted a sugary drink tax.

But cities including San Francisco, Seattle and Philadelphia have one. Philly has seen a 38% drop in the consumption of sugary drinks as a result, advocates say the taxes are justified. 

"We as a country need to be consuming a lot fewer sugary drinks. They bring nothing to us nutritionally," said Amy Nunn, professor of public health and medicine at Brown University. 

But some like Eli Berkowitz, CEO at Little Rhody Foods, say they don’t agree with being in the crosshairs. 

"I understand the thought process, I don’t agree with how they’re doing it. You’re gonna stop selling ice cream? You’re gonna stop selling candy?" Berkowitz said.

The debate about personal choice and taxes on sugary drinks continues. Meantime, health officials warn a rogue sweet tooth can lead to a lifetime of bitter effects.

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