I am surprised to see this video on TED claiming that sugar can lead to addiction (differently from other kinds of food, for example broccoli).

So, yes, over-consumption of sugar can have addictive effects in the brain

--precise spot

I know that over-consumption of sugar is bad because of many reasons, but I find hard to believe that sugar could be compared to heroin or nicotine.

So are TED and Dr. Avena right on this matter?

Bonus Points: Is there any grossly false claim in the video, beside this, if it is false at all?

  • Related, but more general: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/15937/…
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 0:39
  • Related, but about cheese: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/15819/…
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 0:40
  • Related, but about HCFS/different claims: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/370/…
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 0:40
  • 1
    Didn't see the video, yet. But I can affirm that there is far more research on this subject than on pornography addiction, which I answered a question about the other day. In short, it would be something like this: It is not officially recognized as "addiction", but it shows many similarities to it and will probably be in the future. When I get the time I will add a proper answer.
    – tpianca
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 1:28
  • 1
    @DVK they claim two things: 1. that sugar is addictive over and beyond other foods and 2. that sugar has drug like effect, where the drug either directly blocks dopamine receptors or binds to them. in other words that the "sugar experience" does not release dopamine because it's pleasurable, but it's pleasurable because sugar increases dopamine levels in the blood.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 18:41

2 Answers 2


Sugar plays a role too, but the personality traits are more important.

Sugar can induce reward and craving that are comparable in magnitude to those induced by addictive drugs. The neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward appear to be more robust than those of cocaine. Although this evidence is limited by the inherent difficulty of comparing different types of rewards and psychological experiences in humans, it is nevertheless supported by recent experimental research on sugar and sweet reward in laboratory rats [1].

When it comes to humans, food habit and addictive personality matter:

In recent years, a compelling body of evidence suggests that foods high in sugar and fat have the potential to alter brain reward circuitry in a manner similar to that seen when addictive drugs like alcohol and heroin are consumed in excess. These findings have led to suggestions that some cases of compulsive overeating may be understood as an addiction to sweet, fatty, and salty foods. In this paper, it is proposed that high seasonality is a risk factor for binge eating, especially in those characterized by anxious and impulsive personality traits - associations that could only occur in an environment with a superfluity of, and easy access to, rich and tasty foods. ... Results confirmed that symptoms of binge eating and other addictive behaviors were significantly inter-correlated, and that seasonality, gender, and addictive personality traits were strong statistical predictors of the variance in binge-eating scores. Seasonality and addictive personality traits also accounted for a significant proportion of the variance in the measure of addictive behaviors. [2]

It seems that fats have an increased addictive potential when compared to sugar:

Food craving was linked positively to fat content, but negatively to sugar. Food liking was associated negatively with sugar content and processing level. Addictive-like eating predicted elevated overall food craving and liking, and increased craving and liking for processed foods. Attempted restriction efforts were unrelated to craving and liking. BMI was associated with less craving for fattier foods and lower liking for the average food. Hunger was associated with increased craving for the average food. These findings highlight the role of fat in cravings and differences in craving and liking based on BMI, loss of control over eating, and hunger [3].


  1. Ahmed SH, Guillem K, Vandaele Y. Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2013 Jul;16(4):434-9. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0b013e328361c8b8. PubMed PMID: 23719144.

  2. Davis C. A Narrative Review of Binge Eating and Addictive Behaviors: Shared Associations with Seasonality and Personality Factors. Front Psychiatry. 2013 Dec 27;4:183. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00183. PubMed PMID: 24409156.

  3. Gearhardt AN, Rizk MT, Treat TA. The association of food characteristics and individual differences with ratings of craving and liking. Appetite. 2014 Aug;79:166-73. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.04.013. PubMed PMID: 24768936.


Okay, first question that I'm answering.

I recently saw a film about the food industry called "Fed Up" and it mentioned how in a study cocaine addicted rats were offered a choice of two different kinds of water. The first kind had cocaine in it and the second kind had ether sugar water or an artificial sweetener. Something close to 90% of the rats preferred the sweeter water, even with their cocaine addictions.

I didn't think this study was true, so I checked around on the internet to be sure and it's true from what I can tell. I'm aware that HP is not always reliable, so I looked around for the source and I found what looks like the scientific paper on it. It seems to check out and I looked at the sources for their information, how the tests was run, and so on.

Below is the summary of the report.

Here we report that when rats were allowed to choose mutually-exclusively between water sweetened with saccharin–an intense calorie-free sweetener–and intravenous cocaine–a highly addictive and harmful substance–the large majority of animals (94%) preferred the sweet taste of saccharin. The preference for saccharin was not attributable to its unnatural ability to induce sweetness without calories because the same preference was also observed with sucrose, a natural sugar. Finally, the preference for saccharin was not surmountable by increasing doses of cocaine and was observed despite either cocaine intoxication, sensitization or intake escalation–the latter being a hallmark of drug addiction.

And right below this is what the conclusion was.

Our findings clearly demonstrate that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and -addicted individuals. We speculate that the addictive potential of intense sweetness results from an inborn hypersensitivity to sweet tastants. In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants. The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.

Hope this helps.




  • 1
    It would be helpful to others and make this a better answer if you quoted some of the conclusions or summaries from the links. If your summary is correct this will convince people to up vote the answer.
    – matt_black
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 18:31

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