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I've heard multiple times through out my college and early work career that they believed sugar was one element away from being cocaine (or some other drug). However, none of these people had a biology or chemistry background, so I was skeptical. Is there any evidence and explanation if sugar is one element away from cocaine (or any other drug)?

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A water molecule is one atom away from being hydrogen peroxide. I don't have a chemistry background, so I can't answer your question, but even if it was "one element away" that doesn't mean a whole lot. :) –  MDMarra Apr 12 '14 at 14:25
Very similar question: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/6275/… –  nico Apr 12 '14 at 16:28
cocaine (or some other drug such as crack). -- Crack is cocaine... –  Flimzy Apr 13 '14 at 6:15
@Flimzy I don't knwo anything about drugs in general...but I thought the difference was level of purity. –  CyberneticTwerkGuruOrc Apr 13 '14 at 6:32
@MohammadS.: It's like the difference between "tobacco" and "cigarettes." Change your sentence to tobacco (or some other drug such as cigarettes) and the redundancy is obvious. All crack is cocaine. Not all cocaine is crack. It's the same drug. The purity and delivery mechanism may differ. –  Flimzy Apr 13 '14 at 6:33

3 Answers 3

First of all I will assume that by sugar we mean sucrose, which is the common table sugar.

Here is the structural formula for sucrose:

Source: Wikipedia - Sucrose

If you are not familiar with chemical structures for organic compounds, note that every "corner" in a chemical structure like this is considered to be a carbon atom (C), even if it is not written for visual clarity (there may also possibly be hydrogen atoms, see the Wikipedia page on skeletal formulae for an extended explanation)

Here is the formula for cocaine:

Source: Wikipedia - Cocaine

Here is heroin:

Source: Wikipedia - Heroin

Obviously I could go on for a while listing all existing drugs but I guess there is no much point in doing that...

Now, if we take the claim literally, and we look at elements, then the claim is true. Sugar is made by 3 elements: carbon (C), oxygen (O) and hydrogen (H). Cocaine has the same plus nitrogen (N).

However, this is pretty meaningless as the majority of organic compounds contains C, O and H...

If the claim is to be read as one atom more then it is clearly false. And even if it were the case that would not imply absolutely anything in terms of the biological actions of either compound, as their 3D structures are clearly different.

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Nor would it imply anything about the ease of synthesis. –  adam.r Apr 13 '14 at 4:02
In other words, the claim is technically true but essentially meaningless. –  Shadur Apr 13 '14 at 8:20
@Shadur: exactly –  nico Apr 13 '14 at 12:26
With the same literal interpretation, sugar is also only one element away from a nuclear explosive. –  Ilmari Karonen Apr 13 '14 at 12:36
Note also that at those unlabeled corners that are carbon atoms, if there are fewer than four lines coming out of the corner then the assumption is that there are enough hydrogens attached there to bring it up to four. –  Eric Lippert Apr 14 '14 at 15:59

"One element away" is pretty much nonsense, and there are lots of kinds of sugar. Let's ask a more targeted question:

Are some sugars closely related chemically to cocaine or any other drug?

Yes, but it's not cocaine. It's the most commonly used recreational drug, alcohol.

Ethanol, the alcohol in beverages, is

        H    H
        |    |   
    H - C  - C  - O  - H
        |    |
        H    H

Glucose, a simple sugar, is

               H     OH    H     H     H
               |     |     |     |     |
     O = C  -  C  -  C  -  C  -  C  -  C  -  O  -  H
         |     |     |     |     |     |
         H     OH    H     OH    OH    H

Even if you know no chemistry, by inspecting the diagrams you can see that by breaking the sugar into smaller pieces you can turn at least part of it into something resembling an alcohol. In fact, you can turn one glucose into two ethanol and have enough left over to make two CO2 molecules. The reaction is a bit complicated and is usually carried out by a living organism, like brewers yeast. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethanol_fermentation for the details.

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Does sugar ferment in the body? –  Sklivvz Apr 13 '14 at 13:59
@Sklivvz: Brewers yeast breaks down glucose into alcohol and CO2 and does not require oxygen to do so. Human cells, by contrast, break down glucose all the way to CO2 and H2O, but require additional oxygen. Which is why we must both eat and breathe! –  Eric Lippert Apr 13 '14 at 14:04
Indeed glucose is chemically classified as an alchool. –  nico Apr 13 '14 at 15:15
Hehe, fabulous adventures in brewing? –  Benjol Apr 14 '14 at 7:56
@Sklivvz There was a recent news story about a man who's body supposedly contained an environment where carbs were converted to alcohol (this is quite rare): newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/09/21/… –  Graham Apr 16 '14 at 18:21

Perhaps what they are really talking about is the link between sugar and opiates in as far as a predisposition found in users of both.


In other words a similar chemistry in the brain for both.

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Welcome to Skeptics Stack Exchange! Whilst this may theoretically answer the question, it would be preferable to include the essential parts of the answer here, and provide the link for reference. –  Sklivvz Apr 13 '14 at 9:40
Essential parts are here along with reference haha and you know what i answer not for points but because something captures my attention and I feel the need to Share-call me old fashioned ;) –  cea Apr 13 '14 at 12:53
@cea: it is not a question of points. Skliwz comment was there for a reason, that is improving the quality of the answer. First, although link rot is improbable for NCBI, it is good habit to quote the main passages of the article that show your point. Second, the article you linked does not show or imply that "the brain chemistry" of opiates and sugar is the same. They review evidence that use of opiates increases preference for sweet food. –  nico Apr 13 '14 at 15:12
I don't like repeating myself but I see nothing wrong with my answer - it is just another reference, do with it what you like. I found it interesting to read. –  cea Apr 14 '14 at 3:41
@nico It very much does because high levels of dopamine are released with sugar intake as it is with opiates. –  cea Apr 14 '14 at 8:52

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