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How Addictive is Sugar? Some Doctors Say More than Cocaine

By Edited Aug 29, 2016 1 6
Sugar crystals
Credit: Umberto Salvagnin via Flickr/CC by 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/kaibara/139793866

In early 2014, a U.S. doctor warned the public about the damaging effects of sugar on the body, going as far as calling the sweet substance a "deadly white powder." The doctor had pointed out several factors that aligned sugar with being a highly addictive substance, comparing it with cocaine.

Is sugar more addictive than cocaine? 

Doctors Cite Damaging Effects of Sugar

Dr. Mark Hyman, family physician and chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine, warned if society continues to eat the high levels of sugar it currently does, this is going to cause increased levels of health issues. He stated obesity is more than just about eating less and exercising, noting sugar is a serious problem in routine diets. Hyman has reportedly been studying the effects of sugar for the past 20 years and planned to incorporate his findings into a book he was publishing titled, "The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet."  In his book, his aim was to help people kick the sugar dependency.

"Sugar is the new nicotine. Sugar is the new fat — except fat is not addictive in the way that sugar is," Dr. Hyman said, according to the New York Daily News report. "And worse, sugar actually causes diabetes and obesity." 1

In 2015 another report surfaced where another doctor made the comparison between sugar and cocaine. According to Boston's WBUR station, James DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist at St. Luke’s Mid-America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo., published a "comprehensive review" where he looked at dozens of studies on the subject, concluding (refined) sugar is "similar to cocaine" and studies show it is even more addictive.

“When you look at animal studies comparing sugar to cocaine,” DiNicolantonio told WBUR, adding, “even when you get the rats hooked on IV cocaine, once you introduce sugar, almost all of them switch to the sugar.” 2


Spilled sugar
Credit: Lindsey Turner via Flickr/CC by 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/theogeo/2120384277

Sugar '8 times' More Addictive than Cocaine

Most people understand the dangerous addictions associated with cocaine abuse, but many probably do not consider how certain foods eaten every day can possibly be just as addictive - and also cause harm.

"In animal studies, they find that the rats go for the sugar and that it's eight times as addictive as cocaine," Dr. Hyman said on "CBS This Morning". "Small amounts of sugar can be part of a normal diet, but most of us are addicted to sugar and don't know it." (courtesy AOL) 3

He theorizes people can't "manage their behavior" and eating because of the addictive properties in sugars that make people eat more, citing people eat, on average, 152 pounds of it a year. He also points to carbohydrates, noting the average consumption of flour is 146 pounds a year. Carbohydrates can only be stored in small quantities and whatever isn't consumed by the body for energy is turned into fat. 

Hidden Sugars

In addition to obvious sugar-laden products, such as soda, a ton of hidden sugars are routinely added to processed foods and, even those foods most people might consider to be healthy - such as cereal, quick oats, granola bars, yogurt and tomato sauce - to name a few, often have excess amounts of it in their recipes.  Ideally, to cut back on the additional amounts, it is a good idea to eliminate eating foods that have more than a few "real" ingredients.    

Additionally, experts suggest avoiding artificial sweeteners, as these can have just as bad, if not worse, effects than natural sugar. Dr. Hyman also recommended to not eat foods that contain high-fructose corn, trans fats, and hydrogenated oils or refined vegetable oils, such as those containing corn and soybean. Hyman referred to his method as a "detox" and makes it clear it is not a fast. Media outlets reported the doctor had previously treated patients with drugs and alcohol dependencies.

Hyman is not the first doctor to suggest sugar addiction and connect it to processed foods. A 2010 piece by Jeffrey Rossman, Ph.D., also pointed out the issues associated with sugar addiction.

"Food manufacturers bank on it when they load sugar into soft drinks, breakfast cereal, soups, salad dressings, spaghetti sauce, energy bars, and even catsup," Rossman wrote.  

The U.S. government decided to sit up and take notice of the issues associated with sugar and has been working on revisions over the past few years. It was announced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on May 20, 2016 the updated labeling on the Nutrition Facts Label was complete. Some details would be better highlighted (such as serving sizes and number of calories) and there was also a change made to the sugar labeling segment of the label (to the dismay of big industry who had fought the initiative for over two years). The portion under the carbohydrate line will now be more detailed and, instead of simply showing "sugars", it will be broken down further to show the percentage of extra amounts were added during processing of the food item. 5, 6

[ Related Reading: Ways Food Labels are Deceptive ]

Nutrition Facts Label 2016
Credit: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration unveiled its new Nutrition Facts Label in May 2016.

The GMO Factor

There is also the GMO factor - genetically modified organisms - to consider as well. Long-term effects of GMOs are not yet known and the issue is highly controversial. There is a growing segment of the public preferring to err on caution when it comes to GMOs while industry goes full force ahead. 

Since GMOs were introduced in the consumer market in the mid-1990s (unbeknownst to consumers since labels on foods containing GMOs aren't required in many countries, including the United States and Canada), sugar derived from beets has become one of the most prominent foods on the market containing GMOs. Reuters reported in October 2015 "Beets will account for almost 60 percent of this year's 8.8 million tons of sugar production in the United States." 7

Currently, extensive debate exists as to whether GMO foods should be labeled, sugar included. In the United States, big industry is currently fighting very hard to fight proposed requirements for GMO labeling. To date, most lawmakers are supporting these companies and not requiring labels on food packaging (a number of countries do require labeling and many of these very same companies fighting it in North America do put labels on exported goods).

Not to digress, but if sugar is addictive and GMOs are being widely used without labeling,  it stands to logic that people may be eating a large quantity of GMO foods, where the long-term effect is unknown may or may not be doing considerable damage to their health. A double whammy, so to speak.

Have you or someone you love compelled to eat excess sugar? Is the sweet substance more addictive than cocaine?  What do you think? Has including additional sugar in foods reached a crisis point?



May 31, 2016 6:17am
While vilifying sugar is currently in vogue, the fact is sugar can be enjoyed in moderation – just like other sources of calories. We would also add that food, not beverages, are actually the top contributor of added sugars in the American diet. Moreover, our industry is actively advocating for a better balance between what people eat, drink and do via our Balance Calories Initiative. Our member companies are supporting this effort by rolling out a greater variety of low- and no-calorie options and smaller portion sizes. Our industry has also led the way with clear calorie labeling so that consumers can make informed choices and integrate beverages into a sensible diet. At the end of the day, it’s overall dietary and activity balance that matters. Targeting any one food, beverage or ingredient is unproductive and distracts from this bigger health picture and message.
Jun 3, 2016 10:48am
Thank you for commenting. Moderation is important, I'd agree, but disagree looking at sugar is a distraction (I did point out in my article many foods contain high levels of sugar). Clearly, many different things can and do affect health, but if people are having issues with sugar and it's negatively affecting them, it's important to look at why. This article was more focused on reports I'd read highlighting the addiction aspect (and I do believe it is a real issue because I've seen it happen to someone). The new labeling will help consumers make informed choices and provide a better level of transparency. As for beverages, I have noticed sizes have shifted away from the "supersize" of yesteryear and portions are going back to what I remember decades ago. This and other initiatives you've described are positive things.
Jun 1, 2016 5:44pm
I had to smile when Dr. Hyman said fat isn't addictive like sugar is. I'm guessing he doesn't know any serious low carbers, lol. Wheat, dairy, and sugar are the big trio that affect the reward center of the brain, so the addiction is actually to the endorphin rush. I get a kick out of the low carbers who demonize sugar while drowning everything they eat in cheese or heavy cream. A lot of them bake with very high-gluten flours as well.

Hubby is what some might call addicted to sugar, but it doesn't affect his blood glucose level. I definitely cannot relate to those who say they have lost their "taste" for sugar. Even after going sugar-free for 6 or 7 years, that addictive quality is still there if I don't stay mindful of what I eat and drink.
Jun 3, 2016 10:56am
I hadn't really thought about dairy as creating that rush you describe. That's not something I've experienced, interesting point. (The wheat and other carbs, I can relate to, lol). There is someone I know who can't stop with the sugar and it's really created a negative impact on health.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
Jul 4, 2016 10:00am
Thank you for including dairy in the equation! Many studies have linked some ingredients in Cheese very addictive, even more than cocaine! This is an interesting issue that should be researched as well. I believe that moderation is key, but I saw this documentary that affirmed the real danger lies in the combination of sugar and fats!
Jul 5, 2016 2:51am
Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I'm going to look up more about dairy, very interesting. Also, welcome to IB!
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  1. "'10 Day Detox Diet' author Mark Hyman tells how to end sugar addiction and clean up your diet." New York Daily News. 11/02/2014. 23/05/2016 <Web >
  2. "Is Sugar More Addictive Than Cocaine?." WBUR . 23/05/2016 <Web >
  3. "Doctor says sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine." AOL.com. 24/02/2014. 23/05/2016 <Web >
  4. "10 Ways To Stop Sugar Addiction ." Rodale's Organic Life. 06/11/2015. 23/05/2016 <Web >
  5. "Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label." U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 20/05/2016. 23/05/2016 <Web >
  6. "Why the sugar industry hates the FDA’s new Nutrition Facts label." Washington Post . 20/05/2016. 23/05/2016 <Web >
  7. "GMO backlash threatens beet farmers as foodmakers swap sugars." Reuters. 29/10/2015. 23/05/2016 <Web >

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