The Psychology of Sugar


We all probably like the taste of sugar, the sweet substance found in almost every food. The taste can be addicting but is unhealthy when you consume large servings of it. But what makes humans addicted to that particular taste? Why does the brain interpret sugar as a sweet substance that brings pleasure to the taste buds?

Sweetness is among the most common five types of taste the tongue can pick up, along with sour, bitter, salty, and savory flavors. Sugar is the only kind of chemical that can activate this sense, but its derivatives can, such as lactose and fructose. Artificial sweeteners still use sugars and a combination of certain herbs to enhance the sweetness, earning the nickname intense sweeteners. Sugar has a simple structure of  C3H6O3. The amount of hydrogen interacting with the rest of the structure determines the level of sweetness.

The tongue picks up sensory information that is attached to food. Sugar is detected on the front of the tongue. However, nothing happens until the information containing different variables reaches the brain, like how sweet it is. When it reaches the brain, the brain interprets different chemicals, which it then tells the rest of your body. Naturally, the brain sets up a psychological reward system. This is a leftover evolutionary element left from our ancestors, back when they used to live in caves. Sugar was valued and one of the rarest foods that could be consumed. The mind started associating sugar with rarity and luxury. So whenever a human ate something with sugar in it: chocolate or strawberries, the mind would think it’s being rewarded. This reward system will also award the brain with a temporary sense of excitement that is felt mentally, not physically. This is also known as dopamine and is also felt when accomplishing something and interacting in a social setting. However, this kind of excitement can be extremely appealing and cause people to seek this mental climax constantly. In other words, it is not the sweet taste of sugar that is addicting; it is the mental release of dopamine that is addicting.

It’s been known for a while that the sense of novelty will give the brain dopamine. For example, if you eat a new dish, the brain will release dopamine from the novelty of that dish. If you keep eating that dish, the novelty of that will wear off, and eventually, you will not receive any dopamine. The same goes for sugar. However, if you have sugar every once in a while, it can be way more rewarding rather than eating it every single day. If you have a lot of sugar all the time, the novelty of having something sweet will decrease each time, and eventually, the taste of sugar will not release dopamine anymore. That being said, if you have a balanced diet with protein and vegetables, you can consume sugar, just not very often.

In conclusion, it is important to focus on the psychological impacts of sugar as well as how it might physically affect your body. Being rare in nature, the human brain is programmed to value sugar. So, whenever it is consumed, the brain will think that it is being rewarded and makes sure to throw a cognitive party for the rest of your mind. However, in the modern world, where sugar is everywhere, its excess can cause the mind to get used to the constant mental high that is experienced every time it is consumed. The mind will be rewired into believing the consumption of sugar is part of normal routine and will constantly long after that feeling. In other words, the brain will become addicted.