Who is to blame when we are addicted to sugar?

sugar sign
"The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake." - First Lady Michelle Obama at the Let's Move! launch

Who is to blame when we are addicted to sugar?

I’m a nutritionist. So from all the people in the world I should know better. And I do. And you do too. Sometimes it just seems so hard not to. I’m talking about sugary gifts. I know that refined sugar carries absolute zero health benefits. Even worse. I know that refined sugar does a lot of unhealthy things in your body but at the same time lights up our reward center in the brain like a Christmas tree. This is not a good combination.

Sugar uses the same pathway to create pleasure in the brain as cocaine does.

Still, it’s my nephew’s birthday and you can find me collecting “treats” at the least healthy store in Vancouver. But I also know that a box full of North American candy will just melt splendidly in his cute little mouth. His fingers will be all sticky and I can already see the big grin on his face. The last time I saw him snacking on gummy bears, he actually locked himself into the car, ducked deep down in the front seat so he could enjoy his sugar bliss in private. He is such a sweetheart. And I want to be his best aunt ever. So every time one of my “treats” will find its way into his mouth, he will think of me. And at the same time his pleasure center will light up. And because his brain is not dumb, it will connect aunt Tanja with pleasure, joy and fun and save this information on his hard drive. And all it needs to recall these joyful feelings later in life is to look at the candy bars I got him. A win, win situation! I will always be the generous aunt! Oh, what a party! Try to get the same results with the gift of a nutritious kale smoothie.

The big players of the food industry know all about the power sugar has on the brain.

Unfortunately I’m not the only one who uses this secret to receive love and admiration. The processed food manufactures figured it out long before me. The secret of the behavior forming abilities of our brain is no news to them. Unilever for instant, who produces delights under the brands like Becel, Ben & Jerry’s, Knorr and Ragu, kept a twenty-person team busy (cost -$30 million) to study the sensory powers that food has on the brain. Since all of the world’s largest food manufactures want your unshared attention when it comes to their products, they all want to improve the addictive qualities of their foods.

Big players food industry & their brands

Click on picture to enlarge.

I’m sorry if I crushed your reality here about the big players in the food industry. But let’s be honest. It is about business. Name me one company that produces food and does not think about making money with it. Put yourself in their shoes. If you would be responsible for a company with lots of shareholders and employers and huge food manufacture plants, your success as a manger would be measured in $$$ and consumer numbers, not how healthy (and therefore more expensive in manufacturing) a product is.

The processed food business is actually a very difficult business. You have to think about so many things. Where to find producers that sell ingredients cheap? How will the chemists be able to create a cereal in the shape and the colors of a rainbow that doesn’t turn into mashed cereal as soon as the milk hits it? How to make the food-like product in a box never ever expire? What color of packaging is attractive to you, the consumer (ever had tomato sauce in a black packaging)? What words on the packaging will lure you in (healthy will get your attention on vitamin water, right)? What sound does the potato chip have to make when you dig in (you don’t like non crispy potato chips, do you)? What products do the supermarket managers want on their shelves (ever see kohlrabi nuggets in the freezer)? And the most important question of all is: “What’s your bliss point?”

Bliss point = optimum concentration of sugar at which the sensory pleasure is maximal.

Bliss point you’re asking? Food manufactures know a lot about you and me. I guess more than we would like them to know. They know what the optimum concentration of sweetness in food is, basically what amount is needed to make you addicted to sugar. Not too much, so that it’s not overpowering. Not too little. Just about the optimum concentration at which the sensory pleasure is maximal. Your personal bliss point dictates why you love ketchup brand x over ketchup brand y (oh, you didn’t know that ketchup is loaded with sugar, sorry). It dictates why you admire candy rainbow over candy unicorn. And your bliss point determines how much ketchup, candy and soda you will buy, which in turn means more or less sales for food companies.

So yes, food companies know that our brain loves sugar. It is the reason why Froot Loops were a stable in my diet until a few years back. And if our brain says “Oh, that was great” then we as well will connect pleasure with Froot Loops. I want pleasure for breakfast. Don’t you? So it’s just what food manufactures ordered. You are not into Froot Loops? Oh! Then how about a slice of honey bread with honey glazed ham and honey mustard?

I drastically minimized my consumption of refined sugar a couple years back on my low-carb journey. I don’t drink soda anymore, I bake my own muffins and granola, I said good-bye to my best friends m&m’s and Froot Loops. But of course sometimes I have it with baked goods or kettle corn, which I can’t resist to enjoy or treats others buy for me. Let’s be realistic. It is impossible to cut our refined sugar completely if you don’t live in the jungle. But every less teaspoon of sugar consumed counts. In my case the health result is incredible. I never have been as healthy and fit as I am today. I can think clear. Studying and understanding links comes so easy nowadays. I wish I would have known this back in my school years. Find here a list of “My favourite sugar substitutes”. Back to my nephew.

Kids love sugar even more than adults.

food colouring, artificial flavour, cerealAnd today’s kids are consumers of tomorrow. So it is very important to please them. Unfortunately the bliss point for sugar is shaped in early childhood years, which means the more sugar there is in a kids food the more sugar they will crave when they are adults. Remember, sugar is toxic and not healthy. So what does that say about processed food manufactures? By the way only the American Heart Association had the guts to recommend a daily limit for sugar so far. For myself it’s 5 teaspoons (21 grams) of sugar, which is equal to half a can of coke or (not and) 1 1/4 serving of Froot Loops a day.

We have to choose. As long as we are making food choices only based on taste and not on nutritional factors, we will be in the hands of food companies that only seek our money. And if sugar makes us buy their products, they will surely put it in there. If you don’t care about the nutritional content of your food, you let third parties decide what your family and your children eat, now and in the future. If you trust words on packaging like “Wonder”, “Vitamin water” and “Healthy” or a celebrity on TV saying that it is great to enjoy this or that, then you are exactly where food manufactures want you to be. Under their control. Health is our own responsibility. Don’t count on anyone else, especially not large food companies.

Every time the cashier scans your products you vote “for refined sugar” or “against refined sugar”.

You are saying it’s out of your hands? How can you influence what the large players in the food manufacturing produce? You can. All they are interested in is your money. After all they are in the producing business (not the health business). They produce what you want to spend your money on. Every time the cashier scans your products at the cash out you participate on a survey or pole and send a message to food companies. Either you say “I’m okay with non-nutritious food, keep producing that crap, I will feed it to my children no matter what” or you can say “It’s not okay to put the health of my children and family in jeopardy. Make things better. NOW.” You have a choice. And I promise you that it will work. We asked for more fiber in cereals. We got more fiber in cereals. People asked for gluten-free food. Did you go to the gluten-free expo? We said, that antibiotics in meat are not okay. Now we can buy meat from animals that were raised without antibiotics. We can do this. Stop playing the victim here and make better choices. Support a local business that cares about ingredients. They might charge $1 more for a chocolate bar but it’s an investment in your health and the future of the food system. It’s your hard earned money and you should get quality products for it not cheap crap that you can’t stop buying because your brain is addicted to sugar. You got the power. Try something new. 

For myself, I guess, I have to emulate the change that I want to see in other people. The candy’s I got for my nephew will not make it across the ocean. Sugar will not help me dig my way into his heart. These times are over. I will have to sacrifice myself and experiment what this stuff does to my brain…oh my, I forgot just how good m&m’s were!!!

A great read on this topic that I highly recommend is: “Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss – Winner of The Pulitzer Prize

More to come:

  • Learn why sugar, food coloring, additives and flavoring put your health and the health of your children at risk.
  • Why high-carb foods like pizza, pasta and bread are no better and will light up your reward center as well.
  • Why fat, salt and MSG are also stables and loved by food manufactures.
  • Learn about different sources of sugar and how to distinguish between “healthy” and “unhealthy” ones.

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Who is to blame when we are addicted to sugar? by
Tanja Knapp
About the Author
Tanja Knapp

Tanja Knapp is an Explorer, Adventurer and Happiness Hunter currently camping in beautiful Vancouver, Canada. Her roots are in Germany where she grew up on a remote farm. A colony of abnormal cells in her cervix taught her the lesson that would change her life forever. Life doesn't get better by chance, it get better by change. She truly believes in creating happiness & health through constant adapting, growing and evolving. Her super power is curiosity. With her blog she likes to inspire others to explore uncharted territory.

If she is not busy writing, running, swimming or cycling, she is expanding her knowledge, exploring the World, and taking on new challenges.

She is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and graduated with an Honors diploma in Holistic Nutrition from the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition in 2013. She obtained a Hospitality certification in 1998 and a Marketing Communications diploma in 2004. She has worked both in Europe and North America.

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