Sweeteners create cocaine-like addictions: Canadian study

TORONTO – Could sugary syrups used widely in processed food and drinks cause the same feel-good changes to your brain as cocaine? A Canadian researcher, who fed rats the illicit drug along with Oreos, suggests that food addiction is real and could help explain the globe’s struggle with obesity.

Some consumers are more vulnerable than others to the alluring effects of high-fructose corn syrup, according to Dr. Francesco Leri, a University of Guelph scientist.

These people who are more sensitive are more likely to form an addiction to unhealthy fare laced with processed sugar the same way drug abusers can rely on cocaine, Leri said.

“The trend in obesity has been essentially parallel with increased availability of sugar, salt and fat. It’s not that one causes another – it increases the chance to have vulnerable people who are likely to get an addiction,” Leri told Global News.

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Leri’s study adds to a growing movement in favour of the food addiction hypothesis. It’s a controversial idea – it argues that sugary fare may be available globally now, but not everyone with access to junk food is obese. It’s this vulnerability to addiction that’s the link.

Leri pointed to studies on coke addition: many people try the powerful drug but only a small percentage become addicted. Leri suggests it’s the same case with food – sugary, salty, fat-laden foods are more available to us all, but not all consumers are overweight.

In his study, Leri worked with about 80 rats that were fed their daily meals and weren’t restricted from food at any time.

He gave the rats an option to go into two chambers: one that was empty and one with two Oreo cookies. On other instances, the rats were given cocaine infusions by pressing on a lever.

Results showed that about 54 rats made a beeline for the cookies, even after their suppers, meanwhile another 24 didn’t.

Turns out, those who ate dessert were the same group that reached for cocaine and even worked harder for it, eagerly pressing their levers until the drugs were released.

If the researchers tried the same study with salad instead of Oreos, for example, the results wouldn’t be so strong.

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“If you use something sweet and high in fat, you can see the difference,” he said.

“It is clear that sweet substances engage systems in the brain that overlap with systems in the brain that are engaged in drug abuse. Several researchers have done very elegant studies that have looked at specific aspects of this overlap,” Leri said.

One California State University paper released last year chronicled the release of feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin.

“There appear to be several biological and psychological similarities between food addiction and drug dependence including craving and loss of control,” the study says.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an Ottawa-based obesity expert, told Global News that the fast food industry is making the most of consumers’ love for sugary meals.

“These facts aren’t lost on the food industry wherein their job is to literally engineer products where they ‘bet you can’t eat just one’ and where they purposely and understandably take advantage of our neurophysiology to create hyperpalatable foods which in turn help to fuel society’s ongoing struggles with weight,” Freedhoff said.

He said he wonders if the framing of this food addiction phenomenon is backwards.

“The interesting item to note is that cocaine lights up the same centres as food and not the other way around. Meaning it’s not at all surprising that our brains’ pleasure centres are wired to “light up” when we consume foods high in calories given that our physiology was born out of millions of years of dietary insecurities and those who ate the most survived,” he said.

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Leri said he hopes his research helps policymakers and health officials with what they’re allowing in food products and providing consumers to eat.

Parents could even pay attention to what they’re feeding kids so they aren’t fostering a reliance on sugary food.

“Once you develop an addiction, you lose control. From what we learned from drugs, you’re going to carry that for your entire life,” Leri said.

His complete findings were presented Wednesday at the annual Canadian Association for Neuroscience meeting.

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