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Hidden sources of sugar and your addiction to sweet

Saturday, March 04, 2017
Ever wondered why sugar is so addictive? It’s sometimes regarded as the ultimate legal drug from its effects and how easily it can propel you to seek out your next ‘fix’. “But I don’t eat sugar” is a frequent response; yet most of us would be shocked to learn how much sugar we’re actually eating because it’s so well concealed.

We’re hard-wired to detect sweet tastes, just like we’re equipped to detect salty and sour tastes. But  the experience of sweetness switches on a certain neurotransmitter (a brain chemical messenger) that sparks happy feelings of satisfaction and reward. 

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter. The experience of a sweet taste on your tongue is rapidly communicated to your brain, which releases some dopamine in response. The more sweet the taste, the more powerful the dopamine outpouring and the better you feel. Feeling happy is a rather nice sensation, so your brain prompts “Fun! Let’s do this again!” and it pushes you to go seek out some more sweet foods.

That drive for ‘sweetness’, researchers have found, is suspected to over-ride other appetite control mechanisms we have to help let your body know when you’ve eaten enough. Because those controls are dampened it’s all too easy to eventually find yourself constantly seeking out the next sugar ‘high’. When you can’t get your ‘fix’ of sugar, a pretty nasty mood can develop. That’s how sugar becomes an addiction.

There are the obvious sugar sources: soft drinks and lollies. But thanks to our addiction to sweet tastes, manufacturers have learnt how to include increasing amounts of sugar to make their product taste good, and you feel good, without being cloyingly sweet.

Yoghurt is an easy trap because in its natural form it’s quite tart; so some manufacturers have added five teaspoons of sugar to a small 200g tub. Muesli is another apparent ‘healthy’ food that can include lots of sugar, especially the toasted varieties. Foods which would normally have a sharp tang to them, like tomato-based pasta sauces, often have sugar added to make them more palatable.

Scrutinising the label has become the only way to ensure your own sugar addiction is managed. Look at the ‘per 100g’ section of the label: More than 15g of sugar per 100g is regarded as ‘high’ in sugar. There’s no perfect way to overcome a sugar addiction, but avoiding hidden as well as obvious sources of sugar is a good start.

Want to know more? Take a look at this paper: ‘Dietary sugars: their detection by the gut-brain axis and their peripheral and central effects in health and diseases. Ochoa et al Eur J Nutr (2015) 54:1-24

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'The 14 day sugar challenge'.

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