Sugar: The West’s (Not-So Secret) Drug

How sugar’s addictive properties are misused for profit.

America is synonymous with obesity, fast food, and large industrial conglomerates within influential political spaces. Whether natural or added, sugar has been a staple in American diets since the end of World War II when high-fructose corn syrup became a popular, cheap additive. Before WWI, Americans ate an average of six pounds of sugar per year; now, we eat a whopping 152 pounds per year (77 grams per day.) The egregious amount of sugar totals to 625 extra calories each day in sugar alone. According to the AHA (American Heart Association,), the average sugar intake for men should be 37.5 grams / 9 teaspoons a day (150 calories,) while women should be consuming 25 grams/ 6 teaspoons a day (100 calories.) This does not necessarily mean that Americans constantly indulge ourselves with fast food, candies and sodas. Often, a large amount of our sugar intake comes from food that one would not expect to have. Pasta sauces range from 6- 12 grams of sugar, popular fruit juice, Naked Juice has 53 grams in one bottle. Even everyone’s favorite breakfast cereal, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, has 9 grams of sugar per its ¾ cup serving size. That doesn’t sound too bad until we realize that most people do not eat ¾ cup serving size, usually having about 1-2 cups. That mindless pour at 8 a.m. equates to 24 grams of sugar to start your morning off. This might not be too jarring of a fact to most Americans, since sugar in Western diets is an open secret amongst those that consume it.

Sugar is found in virtually all packaged and processed foods in America. But nowhere is it more prevalent than in foods marketed explicitly for children. Yogurts, cookies, cereals, juices, waffles, pancakes, peanut butter, jelly, pizza are all marketed for children yet are all high in added sugars.

Who’s responsible?

Image by @picoftasty from Unsplash

For decades, the sugar industry has withheld information confirming that sugar is responsible for heart disease, obesity, liver disease…etc. The Sugar Association is a trade association made up of America’s sugar companies, including Domino Sugar, Imperial Sugar, American Crystal Sugar Company, and many others. In 2007, Cristin Kearns learned that the Sugar Association had funded a research project where it tested if large amounts of sugar can cause chronic illness in mice. When it was found to cause disease, the Sugar Association quickly stopped the project and never published the findings. Similarly, the Tobacco Industry knew about cigarette’s deadly effects, yet did nothing to warn the public as it would hurt their pockets. It was only a few years ago when people were still allowed to smoke in restaurants and clubs; now it’s taboo. Through strategic branding and promotion, as well as smart renaming, the Sugar Association has succeeded in remaining “crucial” to our daily meals while keeping us blissfully unaware.

In recent years, sugar companies have begun changing the recognizable name “sugar,” replacing them with more unusual sounding names. Phrases like “Crystalline fructose,” “Dextran,” “malt powder,” “Maltodextrin,” and many others are meant to confuse unknowing shoppers. What is labeled as “healthy” in the grocery aisle is often packed with sugar.

Why is it so addictive?

Image by @yunmai from Unsplash

Due to the overwhelming presence of sugar within Western diets, it is likely that many Americans unknowingly have a severe sugar addiction. While it is not publicized, sugar addiction is real and releases the same chemicals in the brain as amphetamines do. When large amounts of sugar are consumed, the compound Dopamine is released in the brain, essentially rewarding itself for sugar consumption. This “reward system” creates our means of justification for why consuming sugar is not as bad as it sounds. We equate the feeling sugar makes us feel to comfort, safety, and rewards; therefore, not having it can result in withdrawal symptoms, cravings, and chemical changes. Americans eat 77 grams of sugar per day; that’s 3 times the amount necessary for daily consumption. With such a constant influx of excess sugar, the body becomes physically and emotionally dependent on it.

The excess glucose turns into fat, and the brain becomes dependent on the chemical release of dopamine. Sugar binging and high-tolerance for sugar are common amongst Americans, hence why quitting sugar may be more challenging than expected. “Quitting” only puts into perspective just how much “everyday food” is packed with hidden, added sugars.

Successfully quitting sugar can not only help with weight loss, but also reduces the risk of heart and liver disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and rewires your brain to receive dopamine from another, less addictive source.

Daniella Fishman


Daniella is an NYC born adventurer with a love of traveling, writing, eating, and rollerskating. Dani is passionate about supporting local communities and exploring everything from bustling city life to quiet woodland retreats. There is an adventure around every corner if you open your eyes and mind to it.

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