The Science of Sweetness: How Sugar Is Basically Killing You

Ah, sugar: the bane (or cane, perhaps) of our existence — for Americans anyway. With obesity rates up and sugar addictions driving junk-food sales, it’s worth examining the science of sugar and its alternatives.

By now it’s mostly common knowledge that sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and even supposedly healthy sugar substitutes can be costly to health in excess. But how bad is it, exactly? Here are five facts that help explain the science of sugar and its kin.

1. Sugar is addictive

Like a drug, sugar activates the “reward center” of the brain. Sugar is made up of two molecules, glucose and fructose, the latter of which provides energy but is not a nutrient — meaning our bodies don’t require it to survive.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”Qkq6w2sW1qRRh4G7hLCC7q0G8ZTqkxv3″]It works like this: the pleasure-inducing hormone dopamine triggers euphoria, and gets people (and rats, apparently) hooked. Studies of rodents found that the creatures preferred oreos to both morphine and cocaine, which activated their brains’ pleasure centers more than drugs.

Another study found that in humans, sugar stimulates the reward center of the brain, but fat does not. But it’s not just the brain — expectations of sugar intake cause the release of a chemical called orexin, which causes blood sugar levels to drop and addicts to experience withdrawal.

Sugar addiction has also been found to be linked to genetic variations in ghrelin, the hormone that tells your brain if you’re hungry.

2. Sugar is hidden everywhere

This might all be well and fine if sugar were more easily avoidable. But it’s not — it’s hidden in everyday, non-sweet food as well. Foods as seemingly innocent as oatmeal have over a day’s worth of recommended sugar (in this case, it’s worth noting that Quaker is owned by Pepsico.)

Just a half a cup of Prego tomato sauce has more sugar than three cookies. And let’s not even get started on fast food, which thrives off salt-sugar-fat “bliss spots” (i.e. loaded) guaranteed to keep people craving their products.

Wherever it’s hiding, it’s working: The average American eats 70 pounds of sugar annually, and half of Americans are at risk of health problems related to increased blood sugar levels.

3. Sugar is bad for heart, brain, liver, weight, and teeth

So what’s other than its omnipresence and addictive qualities, what’s so bad about sugar? Well, where to begin? Sugar has been cited as the only cause of tooth decay, and, unsurprisingly, the main cause of obesity and overeating: Sugar delivers calories, but not the feeling that we’ve had enough.

The same factors that lead to obesity, of course, put us at risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. But sugar also has similar effects on the liver as alcohol, and that’s regardless of whether or not you’ve gained weight as a result.

As for the brain, excess sugar consumption has been shown to negatively affect cognitive abilities and prematurely age both the brain and body cells. This is one reason sugar consumption may shorten your life expectancy.

4. Artificial sugar is bad too

So you can just switch to diet, and everything is cool beans, right? Not quite the case.

Numerous studies have suggested that artificial sweetener does the body harm, and the latest, published in Nature, found that artificial sweeteners induced glucose intolerance in lab rats and exacerbated risk of diabetes rather than preventing it.

This conclusion is in keeping with several past studies, but overall research is inconclusive due to mixed findings.

In some cases, artificial sweeteners have been associated with weight gain, likely because non-caloric sweeteners make the brain crave more calories.

5. There may still be hope

The power sugar and junk food has over humanity is astounding, but it may not be a lost cause. Preliminary research shows that it may be possible to train the brain to prefer healthy food and reverse the addictive qualities triggered by the brain’s reward center.

The study found that a group of participants, six months after being placed under a specific dietary regimen, showed an increase in activity in their reward centers in reaction to healthy food, and a decrease in activity in response to unhealthy foods.

It’s too early to say whether this cognitive flip is feasible under other larger-scale  circumstances, but the possibility seems quite promising.

Will it end the icy grip of sugar’s silent but deadly dictatorship over our minds, bodies, and taste buds? Probably not, but it’s certainly a start. 

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Jennifer Markert