Sugar might be addictive in a similar way to cocaine and tobacco, according to researchers.

Published in Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience, a team led by Queensland University of Technology (QUT) suggested sugar elevates the level of pleasure-causing chemicals in the brain in a similar way to addictive drugs.

However, excessive consumption leads to a depression in levels of the chemicals, meaning an increased amount of sugar needs to be consumed in order to get the same reward.

Professor Selena Bartlett, a neuroscientist from QUT, said “We have also found that, as well as an increased risk of weight gain, animals that maintain high sugar consumption and binge eating into adulthood may also face neurological and psychiatric consequences affecting mood and motivation.

“Like other drugs of abuse, withdrawal from chronic sucrose exposure can result in an imbalance in dopamine levels and be as difficult as going ‘cold turkey’ from them.”

similar addictive patterns

Artificial sweeteners such as saccharine were found to produce similar addictive patterns to table sugar.

Researcher Masroor Shariff said: “Interestingly, our study also found that artificial sweeteners such as saccharin could produce effects similar to those we obtained with table sugar, highlighting the importance of re-evaluating our relationship with sweetened food per se.”

A second paper by the team suggested that drugs used to treat nicotine addiction could be used to battle sugar addiction. Published in international research journal PLOS ONE, the drugs were used to treat sugar addiction in animals, and found that they could be used to battle sugar cravings.

Bartlett said: “Our study found that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs like varenicline, a prescription medication trading as Champix, which treats nicotine addiction, can work the same way when it comes to sugar cravings.

“Further studies are required, but our results do suggest that current FDA-approved nAChR drugs may represent a novel new treatment strategy to tackle the obesity epidemic.”

good judgement

While welcoming the research, Chris Ormrod, managing director Ministry of Cake, said good judgement had to be used when assessing the real-world use of such studies.

He said: “The reality of it is there are a lot of things which are addictive, and I think the key with all these things is the moderation of consumption.”

The news follows a recent report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) which estimated the number of people living with diabetes had surged to 422 million in 2014.