The Most Addictive Substance on the Face of the Earth – refined sugar is arguably the most addictive substance produced. This controversial subject has strong opposing arguments from both the food industry and the medical community for the past three decades.
Medical addiction involves changes in brain chemistry which causes binging, withdrawal symptoms, and sensitization. Studies have shown that “excess” sugar, especially refined sugars, to have the same effect on brain chemistry, utilizing the same pathways as amphetamines, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol. Being more prevalent, available, and socially acceptable for consumption, sugar may be a much harder addiction to break than the fore mentioned substances.
Affecting the limbic system, stress hormones, and metabolic pathways, sugar consumption does cause neuro-chemical changes that resemble the effects of substance abuse. Brain scans have confirmed that intermittent consumption of refined sugar does alter the brain chemistry similar to that of certain drugs.
Historically, sugar was first “refined” in Polynesia, where it found its way to India. In 510 BC, Persia invaded India and discovered the secret of “refining cane sugar”. Sugar was a rare “spice” and a substance of wealth. The science of sugar refining was exchanged with each invasion into the middle-east. In the 11th century AD, Europe acquired the science from the Crusades.
By the 18th century, sugar surpassed grain as the “most valuable” commodity in European trade. It made up to a third of all imports, where most of that sugar coming from the British and French colonies in the Caribbean islands.
The Trade Triad was developed as a result of the high demand for sugar in England and Europe. The production of refined sugar required more “man power” than the colonies had available, therefore the rise of Slave Trade became a key component to the Triad. Slaves from Africa were sailed to the Caribbean to tend to the sugar cane fields and sugar manufacturing. Liquid sugar (molasses), tobacco, cotton, and rum would be shipped to England to be transferred into textiles and commodities that would be shipped to Africa to trade for slaves.
Sugarcane is hard on the soil and eventually the crops began to fail. But the civilized world was “hooked on sugar” and the demand remained high. German chemist Andreas Marggraf found another source of sugar, the sugar beet! Because of the Napoleonic Wars, the beet sugar industry began to overshadow the cane sugar imports for Europe.
With the invention of the steam engine, powered sugar mills began to ramp up the production of sugar once again. Many inventors in the 1800s were directly associated with the production of sugar and its byproducts, RUM.
The fermentation of sugars, corn, grapes, potatoes, cane, beets, etc. became another key focus on sugar use. A nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages was instituted in 1920 and lasted until 1933. It was during this time that illegal production of fermented sugar biproducts once again boosted sugar import and production in America.
The industrial production of high-fructose corn syrup was developed in the late 1950’s early 1960’s. This once again boosted sugar manufacturing in the world. Use of the concentrated sugar product was rapidly introduced to many processed foods and gave rise to the soft drink industry.
In 1977 the cost of imported sugars was more than America cared to spend, resulting in a series of sugar tariffs. The United States resorted to corn syrup, because the corn was very abundant and inexpensive to convert to the high-fructose corn syrup product that eventually became more preferred than cane sugar in the food and beverage industry. Coca-Cola and Pepsi switched to corn syrup in 1984 and the start of the cola wars began.
The average American consumed about 38 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup in 2008 versus 47 pounds of refined sugar. Because of the low cost of production, the use of high-fructose corn syrup makes the “snack foods” less expensive than the “healthy foods” in today’s food and beverage choices.
Much debate has been made on the association of high-fructose products in processed foods being linked to various health conditions. Metabolic syndrome, hypertension, dyslipidemia, hepatic steatosis, insulin resistance, and obesity being the most highly debated conditions. Depending on who is doing the study, there has been very little evidence that high-fructose products are more, unhealthy than sucrose and other simple sugars (calorie for calorie).
Today’s researchers are hypothesizing that fructose is responsible for the production of fat formation in the body, more so than other simple sugars. With the increasing prevalence of high-fructose products in processed foods and beverages, there is an increase in added “sugar” calories being absorbed, which may reasonably increase of the obesity and metabolic related illnesses.
Being a substance nearly as old as civilization itself, sugar has become a substance of power, necessity, and social class. The “sweet-tooth” can only be satisfied by a product containing refined sugar or high-fructose products. Marketing has promoted the sale and consumption of sugars to the masses. Unlike a century ago, the rich are not the only ones marketed to with the sale of refined sugars. Where a box of “Twinkies” a six-pack of “Dr. Pepper”, and a tub of “Blue Bell” is less expensive than fresh cut pineapple, strawberries, apples, and bananas it is now the poorer classes that are being targeted by the “sugar” industries.
Our culture is addicted to convenience. Fast food has become a staple in today’s societies and a symbol of civilized nations. Canned foods can last for decades, the shelf life of processed food is 5-10 times that of fresh, organic foods. Therefore, using processed foods containing refined sugar products allow convenience for the average citizen, also placing them into a new risk of metabolic diseases that we are yet to understand. Our dependence on sugar is arguably as dangerous to our health as smoking, drinking, and recreational drug use.