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Study Claiming Sugar Is as Addictive as Cocaine Provokes Controversy

The claim really gives a new meaning to the term 'chocoholic.'
Photo via Flickr user halyousif

A cardiovascular scientist, a cardiologist, and a physician have published a research paper that has become the scientific version of Taylor Swift's new single, with supporters nodding their heads approvingly while others scrambling over each other to talk about how stupid and ridiculous it is. The three authors have suggested that sugar should be considered a 'gateway drug' and that addiction to sugar is just as real—and just as detrimental—as being hooked on actual drugs.


Their study, which was recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, argues that sugar addicts experience the same kind of changes in behavior and brain chemistry as those who are addicted to drugs. "Animal data has shown significant overlap between the consumption of added sugars and drug-like effects, including bingeing, craving, tolerance, withdrawal, cross-sensitisation, cross-tolerance, cross-dependence, reward and opioid effects," the authors wrote, a claim that has been met with a collective eye-roll from some of their peers.

Tom Sanders, a professor of nutrition as dietetics at King's College London dismissed their research as "absurd," and said that while that carton of Chubby Hubby could be habit-forming, it won't be as addictive like cocaine or opioids. "Individuals do not get withdrawal symptoms when they cut sugar intake," he told The Guardian, suggesting that he doesn't have any friends who have done the Whole 30.

Hisham Ziauddeen, a University of Cambridge psychologist, went so far as to suggest that the authors had flat-out misunderstood the rodent studies that they relied on to form the basis of their argument. (The authors cited a study that showed that mice experienced sugar withdrawal and that the test-rodents would choose sugar over cocaine.)

READ MORE: The 'Cocaine' This Student Was Jailed for Turned Out to Be Powdered Sugar

Ziauddeen said that, in his experience, rodents only acted 'addicted' to sugar if they were only allowed to eat it during a two-hour window; their behaviors were less desperate when they could eat sugar whenever they wanted it. "Further, you get the same kind of effect if you use saccharin […] so it seems to be about sweet taste rather than sugar," he told the news outlet. (Ziauddeen was a co-author on a study last year that found "little evidence" to support the idea of sugar addiction in humans, and advised against adding sugar to the list of addictive substances.)

This isn't the first time that sugar has been linked to or compared with Class A drugs (and it has also been called a gateway drug to violence.) Most recently, in 2015, the Journal of Drug Abuse published a study called "Is Sugar a Gateway Drug" that suggested that binging on sugar could trigger the same kind of neurochemical responses as drugs of addiction and said that sugar "may be addictive" when consumed in a binge-like manner (sort of like those mice that Ziauddeen mentioned).

The authors of that study suggested that future research was needed… but for now, chocoholics might not need to check themselves into rehab. We'll keep you posted.