Sugar Addiction and Public Health

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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In summary, the research suggests that for certain people sweets (and other ultra-processed foods) may be capable of triggering an addictive process that results in compulsive food consumption. Yet, there are still more questions than answers in this burgeoning line of research. For instance, there have been almost no studies examining what might be the active ingredient in foods that would make them more addictive, although high levels of sugar are a likely possibility. Identifying which foods may be addictive is especially important when we consider the huge public health costs incurred by addictive substances. Although a significant proportion of people develop full-blown addictions, the number of people who develop “subclinical” problems with addictive substances is far greater. Take the example of alcohol. Around 5 to 10 percent of people develop an addiction to alcohol, but it is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States. This statistic is driven in large part by individuals who exhibit enough of a subclinical addictive response to alcohol (e.g., binge drinking) that they overconsume it in a way that threatens their health and safety.