- John R. White chairs WSU-Spokane’s Department of Pharmacotherapy.
I heard someone recently refer to sugar as a drug. Is that true?
The technical definition of a drug is a non-food substance that alters physiology. Sugar (table sugar, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and a plethora of other names) could be considered a food, but I think it is also important to consider that it is a highly refined and purified substance that does not occur in nature.
This purified substance could in many ways be considered to be a drug, or at least drug-like. It has an impact in the same area of the midbrain as do drugs of addiction. Its highly rewarding properties, beyond that of taste, signal our brains to consume more, which is what many of us do. When consumed, sugar also causes an increase in insulin levels and triggers many other physiologic signaling pathways.
In the body, sugar is broken down into two different simple sugars. Overconsumption of refined sugar has been linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and inflammatory diseases. Unfortunately, it is added to an estimated 75 percent to 90 percent of all processed foods, and is also widely available and offered to us in an unrelenting fashion in almost all retail stores. You will notice that it is strategically placed in the checkout aisle!
There is a raging argument about how much sugar we can safely consume, but almost everyone agrees that it is now widely overconsumed by most people.
So yes, sugar is drug-like, and it is best to limit consumption, and be mindful of its omnipresence in our modern diet.