"Is sugar the new tobacco?" David Benson, a professor of psychology at Swansea University, in Wales, asked delegates at the Sugar Association of South Africa conference in Franschhoek on Tuesday.
As the world gets fatter and deaths from obesity-related illnesses overtake deaths from malnutrition, scientists as well as private citizens are trying to understand why people are packing on the pounds, even though they know it is killing them. Sugar has been vilified as a major culprit, with some saying it is addictive and people cannot help their sugar consumption.
Former commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration David Kessler has said: “Fifty years ago, the tobacco industry, confronted with the evidence that smoking causes cancer, decided to deny the science and deceive the American public. Now we know that highly palatable foods – sugar, fat, salt – are reinforcing and can activate the reward centre of the brain.
"We quickly became trapped in a vicious cycle of dopamine-fuelled urges when we want food and opioid releases when we eat it."
Dopamine and opioid release play a major role in drug and alcohol abuse.
"If we are trying to deal with obesity, and it is found to be an addiction, the worst we can do is diet. We must treat it as an addiction, which is a completely different approach," said Benson.
"If we act as though it is, but it isn't, then we make the situation worse … and diverting attention away from more profitable and useful approaches and condemning people to obesity."
However, he rejected the idea that sugar was addictive. "People are using the term in many different senses … you're not addicted to sugar in the same way that you are to heroin or cocaine," he said.
"There is a distinction between wanting and liking," Benson said, adding that wanting involves craving, the desperation to access the substance. "When dealing with addiction, be clear with what you mean … It's not a vague preference, but addiction is the same [symptoms] that underlie substances of abuse."
Regarding the dopamine release, Benson said substances or experiences are pleasurable because they release dopamine. Sucrose also releases dopamine, but so do your children, music and jokes "all stimulate the reward mechanism in the brain; they all release dopamine."
Drugs – such as cocaine – also had a larger spike in dopamine, which was released for a longer period of time, both before and after consumption, Benson said.
Exercise and sports scientist Professor Tim Noakes, based at the University of Cape Town, has long been a proponent of the idea that physiology, not psychology drives obesity, and it boils down to hunger. "The reality is the food we eat – sugar and carbohydrates – causes hunger," said Noakes.
When the Mail & Guardian asked Benson about this, he said sugar had a lower glycaemic index than bread and cereals.
M&G's Sarah Wild was a guest of the Sugar Association of South Africa.