Bioethics Blogs

Can Sugar be Addicting?

by Michael Kuhar, PhD

Editor’s Note:
Dr. Kuhar is a Candler Professor at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Senior Faculty Fellow in the Center for Ethics at Emory University.  An expert in addiction, he is one of the most productive and highly cited scientists worldwide.  He has received a number of prestigious awards for his work, and is involved in many aspects of brain/behavioral research and education.

You might be interested in his book: The Addicted Brain

Recently, Constance Harrell facilitated an Emory Neuroethics Program Neuroscience and Neuroethics in the News Seminar on sugar and depression. Obesity became a topic and, not surprisingly, out of this discussion arose the question, “Can sugar be addicting?”  This is closely related to the question, “Can food be addicting?”

Somebody might say, we need sugar/food to be healthy, and we can’t do without them, so how can we say they are addicting?  Well, there is an answer to this.  Addiction, by definition, is seeking and taking a substance even though there are negative consequences.  Negative consequences are key. So if we take a substance but there are no negative consequences, addiction wouldn’t be in the discussion.  The question of danger for addiction and abuse might be, but definite addiction probably wouldn’t be (Kuhar 2012).

Consider taking opiates for pain.  Chronic pain patients repeatedly take morphine or similar medicines for a long time.  These patients are “dependent” because if they stop the drug, they go into painful withdrawal. But they are not “addicted” because they don’t compulsively seek out the drug and experience negative consequences.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.