Sugar – Is it now considered the new cocaine?

Sugar – Addictive as Cocaine?

This sounds like a pretty strong statement, don’t you think? However, this was what was suggested a couple of years ago after a review article was posted in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. It claimed that refined sugar was an addictive substance that had similar effects on the brain as illegal drugs such as cocaine. It sparked a furious backlash, with experts describing the claims as ‘absurd’.

The authors of the review article, cardiovascular research scientist James DiNicolantonio and cardiologist James H O’Keefe stated ‘consuming sugar, produces effects similar to that of cocaine, altering mood, possibly through its ability to induce reward and pleasure, leading to the seeking out of sugar’ – an addictive nature. (Let me highlight that the research review was based on studies on rodents rather than humans).

Those who disagreed with them said that the rodent studies had been misunderstood by the authors. Tom Sanders, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at Kings College in London, said that it was ‘absurd to suggest that sugar is addictive like hard drugs’. ‘While it is true that a liking for sweet things can be habit-forming, it is not addictive like opiates or cocaine. Individuals do not get withdrawal symptoms when they cut out sugar’.

Hisham Ziauddeen, a psychiatrist at the University of Cambridge, was also critical of the review and did not support the idea that sugar was addictive to humans. He did though believe there was a problem, and that the problem was more with the ‘huge amounts of sugar that are put into various foods substantially boosting the calorie content of those foods’.

Sugar tax

The increasing consumption of sugar is starting to send alarm bells ringing, with sugar consumption in the UK being almost 3 times the recommended daily sugar intake. The official recommendation from the government is to limit sugar to no more than 5% (or around 30g or 7 cubes of sugar per day). A diet too high in sugar can lead to obesity and its associated health complications such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately there has also been links found between high blood glucose and insulin levels increasing the risk of developing Alzheimers disease. Its no surprise then, that this has prompted the introduction of a sugar tax. But what is it and will it work?

The UK sugar tax, which is officially called the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) was introduced in April last year. The tax puts a charge of 24p on drinks containing more than 8g of sugar per 100ml and 18p a litre on those with 5-8g of sugar per 100ml, directly payable by the manufacturers to HM Revenue and Customs. (Fruit juice with high levels of natural sugar and drinks with 75% milk, and therefore high calcium content, are exempt).

The tax was introduced as part of the government’s childhood obesity strategy and its aim is to decrease sugar consumption be persuading the manufacturers of soft drinks to reformulate their high sugar brands and avoid paying the levy. If they don’t reformulate, its up to the companies to decide whether to swallow the fee or pass it on to consumers.

The news so far is that more than 50% of manufacturers have changed their formula to cut sugar. These companies include supermarket chains Tesco and Asda. Drinks that have seen the reduction include Fanta, Ribena, Irn-Bru and Lucozade. Coca Cola and Pepsi have not done so yet.

On the surface the sugar tax appears to be a good idea however will it ultimately lead to a decrease in sugar consumption?

If we look at the tax on cigarettes in the UK, it does seem to appear that the proportion of adults who smoke has fallen from one in four, to fewer than one in six (Action on Smoking and Health; Smoking Statistics; Nov 2018) since heavier increases in tax were introduced. So does higher taxes = a decrease in consumption? We’ll have to wait and see.

Efforts to reduce sugar consumption

This is not the first effort to reduce sugar in the UK though. Back in 2017, Public Health England (PHE) asked for a 20% cut in sugar content within food produce by 2020. Unfortunately, food manufacturers and supermarkets have only managed to cut 2% of sugar content so far (figures correct as of May 2018) with further figures due out in the next few weeks.

All in all though, we should monitor our sugar consumption. Where possible we should be avoiding processed sugars and those products with added sugars and focusing more on foods containing natural sugars. ‘Foods with natural sugars tend to be low in calories and sodium, and high in water content and many important vitamins and minerals’ explains New York based clinical dietitian Vanessa Voltolina.

If you need help cutting down on sugar consumption head to the NHS website. Your body will thank you for it.