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Sugars and Sweet Taste: Addictive or Rewarding?

NutriSci Inc., Mt. Kisco, NY 10549, USA
Deptartment of Experimental & Clinical Pharmacology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Academic Editors: Alberto Mantovani and Paul B. Tchounwou
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18(18), 9791;
Received: 29 May 2021 / Revised: 10 September 2021 / Accepted: 14 September 2021 / Published: 17 September 2021
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Food Addiction and Binge Eating)
The notion of food “addiction” often focuses on the overconsumption of sweet tasting foods or so-called sugar “addiction”. In the extreme, some have suggested that sugar and sweet tastes elicit neural and behavioral responses analogous to those observed with drugs of abuse. These concepts are complicated by the decades long uncertainty surrounding the validity and reproducibility of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) methodologies used to characterize neurobiological pathways related to sugar and sweet taste stimuli. There are also questions of whether sweet taste or post-ingestion metabolic consequences of sugar intake would lead to addiction or excessive caloric intake. Here, we present a focused narrative review of literature related to the reward value of sweet taste which suggests that reward value can be confounded with the construct of “addictive potential”. Our review seeks to clarify some key distinctions between these constructs and questions the applicability of the addiction construct to human over-eating behaviors. To adequately frame this broad discussion requires the flexibility offered by the narrative review paradigm. We present selected literature on: techniques used to link sugar and sweet tastes to addiction neurobiology and behaviors; sugar and sweet taste “addiction”; the relationship of low calorie sweetener (LCS) intake to addictive behaviors and total calorie intake. Finally, we examined the reward value of sweet tastes and contrasted that with the literature describing addiction. The lack of reproducibility of fMRI data remains problematic for attributing a common neurobiological pathway activation of drugs and foods as conclusive evidence for sugar or sweet taste “addiction”. Moreover, the complicated hedonics of sweet taste and reward value are suggested by validated population-level data which demonstrate that the consumption of sweet taste in the absence of calories does not increase total caloric intake. We believe the neurobiologies of reward value and addiction to be distinct and disagree with application of the addiction model to sweet food overconsumption. Most hypotheses of sugar “addiction” attribute the hedonics of sweet foods as the equivalent of “addiction”. Further, when addictive behaviors and biology are critically examined in totality, they contrast dramatically from those associated with the desire for sweet taste. Finally, the evidence is strong that responses to the palatability of sweets rather than their metabolic consequences are the salient features for reward value. Thus, given the complexity of the controls of food intake in humans, we question the usefulness of the “addiction” model in dissecting the causes and effects of sweet food over-consumption. View Full-Text
Keywords: food addiction; sugar addiction; food cues; reward; obesity; food behavior; binge eating; eating addiction food addiction; sugar addiction; food cues; reward; obesity; food behavior; binge eating; eating addiction
MDPI and ACS Style

Greenberg, D.; St. Peter, J.V. Sugars and Sweet Taste: Addictive or Rewarding? Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18, 9791.

AMA Style

Greenberg D, St. Peter JV. Sugars and Sweet Taste: Addictive or Rewarding? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021; 18(18):9791.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Greenberg, Danielle, and John V. St. Peter 2021. "Sugars and Sweet Taste: Addictive or Rewarding?" International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18, no. 18: 9791.

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