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Study: Sugar and Fat are Addictive like Cocaine

Posted on Friday, 4th November 2011 @ 01:54 AM by Text Size A | A | A

Fatty Foods Addictive Like Cocaine in Growing Body of Scientific Research


Robert Langreth and Duane D. Stanford

If fatty foods and snacks and
drinks sweetened with sugar and high fructose corn syrup are proven to
be addictive, Big Food may face the most drawn-out consumer safety
battle since the anti-smoking movement took on the tobacco industry a
generation ago. Photographer: Denis Stenderchuck/Getty Images

Cupcakes sit on display at a bakery in New York. Photographer: Rich Press/Bloomberg

Cupcakes may be addictive, just like
cocaine.

A growing body of medical research at leading universities
and government laboratories suggests that processed foods and
sugary drinks made by the likes of PepsiCo Inc. and Kraft Foods
Inc. (KFT)
aren’t simply unhealthy. They can hijack the brain in ways
that resemble addictions to cocaine, nicotine and other drugs.

“The data is so overwhelming the field has to accept it,”
said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug
Abuse
. “We are finding tremendous overlap between drugs in the
brain and food in the brain.”

The idea that food may be addictive was barely on
scientists’ radar a decade ago. Now the field is heating up. Lab
studies have found sugary drinks and fatty foods can produce
addictive behavior in animals. Brain scans of obese people and
compulsive eaters, meanwhile, reveal disturbances in brain
reward circuits similar to those experienced by drug abusers.

Twenty-eight scientific studies and papers on food
addiction have been published this year, according to a National
Library of Medicine database
. As the evidence expands, the
science of addiction could become a game changer for the $1
trillion food and beverage industries.

If fatty foods and snacks and drinks sweetened with sugar
and high fructose corn syrup are proven to be addictive, food
companies may face the most drawn-out consumer safety battle
since the anti-smoking movement took on the tobacco industry a
generation ago.

‘Fun-for-You’

“This could change the legal landscape,” said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food
Policy & Obesity and a proponent of anti-obesity regulation.
“People knew for a long time cigarettes were killing people,
but it was only later they learned about nicotine and the
intentional manipulation of it.”

Food company executives and lobbyists are quick to counter
that nothing has been proven, that nothing is wrong with what
PepsiCo Chief Executive Officer Indra Nooyi calls “fun-for-
you” foods, if eaten in moderation. In fact, the companies say
they’re making big strides toward offering consumers a wide
range of healthier snacking options. Nooyi, for one, is as well
known for calling attention to PepsiCo’s progress offering
healthier fare as she is for driving sales.

Coca-Cola Co. (KO), PepsiCo, Northfield, Illinois-based Kraft
and Kellogg Co. of Battle Creek, Michigan, declined to grant
interviews with their scientists.

No one disputes that obesity is a fast growing global
problem. In the U.S., a third of adults and 17 percent of teens
and children are obese, and those numbers are increasing. Across
the globe, from Latin America, to Europe to Pacific Island
nations, obesity rates are also climbing.

Cost to Society

The cost to society is enormous. A 2009 study of 900,000
people, published in The Lancet, found that moderate obesity
reduces life expectancy by two to four years, while severe
obesity shortens life expectancy by as much as 10 years. Obesity
has been shown to boost the risk of heart disease, diabetes,
some cancers, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and stroke, according
to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The costs of
treating illness associated with obesity were estimated at $147
billion in 2008, according to a 2009 study in Health Affairs.

Sugars and fats, of course, have always been present in the
human diet and our bodies are programmed to crave them. What has
changed is modern processing that creates food with concentrated
levels of sugars, unhealthy fats and refined flour, without
redeeming levels of fiber or nutrients, obesity experts said.
Consumption of large quantities of those processed foods may be
changing the way the brain is wired.

A Lot Like Addiction

Those changes look a lot like addiction to some experts.
Addiction “is a loaded term, but there are aspects of the
modern diet that can elicit behavior that resembles addiction,”
said David Ludwig, a Harvard researcher and director of the New
Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Children’s
Hospital
Boston. Highly processed foods may cause rapid spikes
and declines in blood sugar, increasing cravings, his research
has found.

Education, diets and drugs to treat obesity have proven
largely ineffective and the new science of obesity may explain
why, proponents say. Constant stimulation with tasty, calorie-
laden foods may desensitize the brain’s circuitry, leading
people to consume greater quantities of junk food to maintain a
constant state of pleasure.

In one 2010 study, scientists at Scripps Research Institute
in Jupiter, Florida, fed rats an array of fatty and sugary
products including Hormel Foods Corp. (HRL) bacon, Sara Lee Corp. (SLE)
pound cake, The Cheesecake Factory Inc. (CAKE) cheesecake and Pillsbury
Co. Creamy Supreme cake frosting. The study measured activity in
regions of the brain involved in registering reward and pleasure
through electrodes implanted in the rats.

Binge-Eating Rats

The rats that had access to these foods for one hour a day
started binge eating, even when more nutritious food was
available all day long. Other groups of rats that had access to
the sweets and fatty foods for 18 to 23 hours per day became
obese, Paul Kenny, the Scripps scientist heading the study wrote
in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The results produced the
same brain pattern that occurs with escalating intake of
cocaine, he wrote.

“To see food do the same thing was mind-boggling,” Kenny
later said in an interview.

Researchers are finding that damage to the brain’s reward
centers may occur when people eat excessive quantities of food.

Sweet Rewards

In one 2010 study conducted by researchers at the
University of Texas in Austin and the Oregon Research Institute,
a nonprofit group that studies human behavior, 26 overweight
young women were given magnetic resonance imaging scans as they
got sips of a milkshake made with Haagen-Dazs ice cream and
Hershey Co. (HSY)’s chocolate syrup.

The same women got repeat MRI scans six months later. Those
who had gained weight showed reduced activity in the striatum, a
region of the brain that registers reward, when they sipped
milkshakes the second time, according to the study results,
published last year in the Journal of Neuroscience.

“A career of overeating causes blunted reward receipt, and
this is exactly what you see with chronic drug abuse,” said
Eric Stice, a researcher at the Oregon Research Institute.

Scientists studying food addiction have had to overcome
skepticism, even from their peers. In the late 1990s, NIDA’s
Volkow, then a drug addiction researcher at Brookhaven National
Laboratory
on Long Island, applied for a National Institutes of
Health
grant to scan obese people to see whether their brain
reward centers were affected. Her grant proposal was turned
down.

Finding Evidence

“I couldn’t get it funded,” she said in an interview.
“The response was, there is no evidence that food produces
addictive-like behaviors in the brain.”

Volkow, working with Brookhaven researcher Gene-Jack Wang,
cobbled together funding from another government agency to
conduct a study using a brain scanning device capable of
measuring chemical activity inside the body using radioactive
tracers.

Researchers were able to map dopamine receptor levels in
the brains of 10 obese volunteers. Dopamine is a chemical
produced in the brain that signals reward. Natural boosters of
dopamine include exercise and sexual activity, but drugs such as
cocaine and heroin also stimulate the chemical in large
quantities.

In drug abusers, brain receptors that receive the dopamine
signal may become unresponsive with increased drug usage,
causing drug abusers to steadily increase their dosage in search
of the same high. The Brookhaven study found that the obese
people also had lowered levels of dopamine receptors compared
with a lean control group.

Addicted to Sugar

The same year, psychologists at Princeton University began
studying whether lab rats could become addicted to a 10 percent
solution of sugar water, about the same percentage of sugar
contained in most soft drinks.

An occasional drink caused no problems for the lab animals.
Yet the researchers found dramatic effects when the rats were
allowed to drink sugar-water every day. Over time they drank
“more and more and more” while eating less of their usual
diet, said Nicole Avena, who began the work as a graduate
student at Princeton and is now a neuroscientist at the
University of Florida.

The animals also showed withdrawal symptoms, including
anxiety, shakes and tremors, when the effect of the sugar was
blocked with a drug. The scientists, moreover, were able to
determine changes in the levels of dopamine in the brain,
similar to those seen in animals on addictive drugs.

Similar Behavior

“We consistently found that the changes we were observing
in the rats binging on sugar were like what we would see if the
animals were addicted to drugs,” said Avena, who for years
worked closely with the late Princeton psychologist, Bartley
Hoebel
, who died this year.

While the animals didn’t become obese on sugar water alone,
they became overweight when Avena and her colleagues offered
them water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.

A 2007 French experiment stunned researchers when it showed
that rats prefer water sweetened with saccharine or sugar to
hits of cocaine — exactly the opposite of what existing dogma
would have suggested.

“It was a big surprise,” said Serge Ahmed, a
neuroscientist who led the research for the French National
Research Council at the University of Bordeaux.

Yale’s Brownell helped organize one of the first
conferences on food addiction in 2007. Since then, a protégé,
Ashley Gearhardt, devised a 25-question survey to help
researchers spot people with eating habits that resemble
addictive behavior.

Pictures of Milkshakes

She and her colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging to
examine brain activity of women scoring high on the survey.
Pictures of milkshakes lit up the same brain regions that become
hyperactive in alcoholics anticipating a drink, according to
results published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in
April.

Food addiction research may reinvigorate the search for
effective obesity drugs, said Mark Gold, who chairs the
psychiatry department at the University of Florida in
Gainesville. Gold said the treatments he is working on seek to
alter food preferences without suppressing overall appetite.

Developing Treatments

“We are trying to develop treatments that interfere with
pathological food preferences,” he said. “Let’s say you are
addicted to ice cream, you might come up with a treatment that
blocked your interest in ice cream, but doesn’t affect your
interest in meat.”

In related work, Shire Plc (SHP), a Dublin-based drugmaker, is
testing its Vyvanse hyperactivity drug in patients with binge-
eating problems.

Not everyone is convinced. Swansea University psychologist
David Benton recently published a 16-page rebuttal to sugar
addiction studies. The paper, partly funded by the World Sugar
Research Organization
, which includes Atlanta-based Coca-Cola,
the world’s largest soft-drink maker, argues that food doesn’t
produce the same kind of intense dopamine release seen with
drugs and that blocking certain brain receptors doesn’t produce
withdrawal symptoms in binge-eaters as it does in drug abusers.

Industry Response

What’s still unknown is whether the science of food
addition has begun to change the thinking among food and
beverage companies, which are, after all, primarily in the
business of selling the Doritos, Twinkies and other fare people
crave.

About 80 percent of Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo’s
marketing budget, for instance, is directed toward pushing salty
snacks and sodas. Although companies are quick to point to their
healthier offerings, their top executives are constantly called
upon to reassure investors those sales of snack foods and sodas
are showing steady growth.

“We want to see profit growth and revenue growth,” said
Tim Hoyle, director of research at Haverford Trust Co. in
Radnor, Pennsylvania, an investor in PepsiCo, the world’s
largest snack-food maker. “The health foods are good for
headlines but when it gets down to it, the growth drivers are
the comfort foods, the Tostitos and the Pepsi-Cola.”

Little wonder that the food industry is pushing hard on the
idea that the best way to get a handle on obesity is through
voluntary measures and by offering healthier choices. The same
tactic worked for awhile, decades ago, for the tobacco industry,
which deflected attention from the health risks and addictive
nature of cigarettes with “low tar and nicotine” marketing.

Food industry lobbyists don’t buy that argument — or even
the idea that food addiction may exist. Said Richard Adamson, a
pharmacologist and consultant for the American Beverage
Association: “I have never heard of anyone robbing a bank to
get money to buy a candy bar or ice cream or pop.”

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