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No evidence for sugar addiction in people, claims professor

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 05-Jan-2010
Last updated on 08-Jan-2010 at 17:07 GMT

There is no evidence that sugar-addictive behaviors suggested by animal studies exist for humans, claims the author of a new scientific review published in Clinical Nutrition.

Psychology professor David Benton, who specializes in dietary influences on mood and cognitive function at the University of Swansea in Wales, examined a number of predictions starting from the hypothesis that it is possible to develop a sugar (sucrose) addiction.

If sugar addiction exists, Benton suggested, addicts would experience increased food cravings, predominantly for sweet items; cravings would be especially strong in the morning, after an overnight fast; obese people would find sweet foods particularly attractive; and high sugar consumption would predispose people to obesity.

He then reviewed previous research considering the possibility that sugar addiction plays a role in obesity and eating disorders.

The review claims that none of the behaviors suggestive of sugar addiction in animals were supported by human studies.

“There is no support from the human literature for the hypothesis that sucrose may be physically addictive or that addiction to sugar plays a role in eating disorders,” he wrote.

Defining addiction

Any discussion of whether sugar can be addictive is complicated by the lack of a universal definition of ‘addiction’. Benton acknowledges this, saying that he took a meaning that makes parallels between physical response to drugs of abuse and the body’s response to sugar – implying that addiction involves craving, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.

Many studies have examined the concept of sugar addiction, but much of the renewed interest in it stems from a study carried out by researchers at Princeton University late in 2008 that also used this definition of addiction. The study showed altered brain function and signs of addiction in rats given high-sucrose solutions that were then withdrawn and later reintroduced. But even the lead researcher, Professor Bart Hoebel, stressed at the time that although his results were exciting, more work needed to be done to understand their implications for treating people.

Benton wrote: “Although the scientists who work on animal models tend to be cautious when drawing conclusions, many in the general population have falsely attributed addictive properties to sucrose, even when consumed in a normal manner.”

Implications

He added that pinpointing one factor, such as sugar, as the cause of problem eating should be carefully considered – if true, it would have broad repercussions not only for the food and beverage industry, but also for the concept of dieting.

“If addiction to food can be established in humans there are widespread implications,” he wrote. “Dieting might not be the optimal response to obesity as it will lead to counter-regulatory mechanisms such as cravings and withdrawal symptoms… There are also potentially widespread implications for food manufacturers and the fast food industry.”

Benton wrote that if sucrose is responsible for obesity then responses should concentrate on this one ingredient. If it is not, concentrating on sugar could mean that other approaches to deal with obesity are ignored.

Additionally, he concluded: “The use of rat behavior as an experimental model of the human condition is fraught with difficulties…Only if there are marked parallels in the response of the two species will the use of animal models be informative.”

Source: Clinical Nutrition

(2010), doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2009.12.001

“The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and eating disorders”

Author: David Benton

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