Sweet on Sweets

Leading scientists investigate the addictive properties of sugar

By Hannah Gibson

Sugary foods and beverages are frequently marketed as if they had addictive qualities, especially in advertising geared toward children. Many of us remember the “Cocoa Puffs” commercials, in which Sonny the Cuckoo bird tries all sorts of crazy schemes to stop eating Cocoa Puffs; he inevitably gets jittery, sees Cocoa Puffs everywhere, and starts screaming “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!” Advertisements often feature phrases like “Too good to resist.” An Australian cereal made of chocolate filled squares even has the name “Krave.”

The average American child consumes one or more soda or soft drink per day, which provides 10% of their daily calorie intake. In an interview this year with Radio Boston, Kelly Brownell, Director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, stated that sugary soft drinks are especially damaging to health because our bodies do not recognize them as food. Instead, the sugar in the drink acts like a drug and triggers an addictive process.

It’s hard to say whether sugar actually is an addictive substance, since it is unclear what an addiction actually is. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines chemical addiction, or dependence, as a “compulsive physiological and psychological need for a habit-forming substance.” Certain physical and psychological signs separate true chemical dependence from habitual enjoyment of a substance or activity. According to the American Psychiatric Organization, addiction is characterized by three behaviors: binging (consuming large amounts of food in a small amount of time after a period of abstinence), withdrawal (depression and anxiety if the substance is not available), and cravings. The cravings increase the longer the substance is not available.

Rochelle Schwarts-Bloom, a professor at the Duke University Medical center, explains that addictive drugs affect the brain by triggering the release of chemical neurotransmitters, which create a “high.”

There is evidence that sugar has addictive properties; a team of Princeton University psychologists, lead by Dr. Bart Hoebel, produced in rats the behaviors and brain chemistry of addiction. The rats were divided into four groups. The experimental group was given access to feed and sugar for 12 hours then deprived of both for 12 hours. Hoebel also set up three control groups. One group had access to sugar and feed at all times, one had access to only feed at all times, and one had access to only feed in 12 hour periods. The rats in the control groups displayed no signs of addiction, but the group on the 12-hour on, 12-hour off sugar and feed schedule did. Rats in the experimental group that were later denied sugar for 24 hours tended to binge, exhibit withdrawal symptoms—like tremors and anxiety—and display behaviors consistent with craving; this response was similar to rats on morphine or cocaine. Hoebel and his team also found that sugar consumption triggered the release of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, in the rat’s brains. Addictive drugs like morphine and cocaine trigger a similar response, suggesting an addictive quality to sugar.

Other researchers, like University of Swansea neuroscientist David Benton, have criticized Hoebel’s work, pointing out that a huge variety of actions and substances trigger a release of dopamine in the brain. Sure, sugar and cocaine stimulate release of neurotransmitters, but so do music, humor, winning a prize, familiar faces, attractive faces, smiling faces, and being in love. Clearly, the release of dopamine isn’t sufficient evidence of addiction! Further, rats on the alternating sugar and feed schedule showed the neurological and behavioral signs of addiction, but the rats with constant access to sugar did not. This suggests that perhaps sugar is not an addictive substance, like heroin or cocaine, but that addiction to sugar may occur if it’s eaten in a period of binging followed by long periods of restraint.

Even if Americans are not clinically “addicted” to sugar, they are definitely eating way too much of it. The average American eats 64 pounds of sugar a year; that’s about 124 grams (31 teaspoons) of sugar per day, which is more than three times the recommended amount. The American Heart Association recommends that a person following a 2,000-calorie a day diet consume 36 grams (9 teaspoons) of sugar daily. There are many health conditions linked to a diet too high in sugar, including an increased risk for heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, gout, hypertension, gum disease, tooth decay, obesity, and the substance potentially has addictive properties.

There has been a push in recent years to limit the amount of sugar in packaged food. Many parents are concerned about the aggressive marketing of sugary, unhealthy foods and beverages to children and are trying to limit their sale in school cafeterias. In their article “The Toxic Truth About Sugar,” Robert Lustig, Laura A. Schidt and Claire D. Brindis advocate for regulations and a tax on sugary products. In May, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on oversized sugary beverages. Recently in Massachusetts, a legislative attempt to end the sales tax exemption for soda failed; the exemption makes it easier to for sodas to be cheaper. In some places soda can be cheaper than water.

According to Ashley Geardherdt, a researcher at Yale University, sugar is minimally regulated, and food companies receive subsidies form the federal government, making it possible for them to produce extremely sugary foods. Geardherdt is concerned about the rapid increase in the amount of sugar in the American diet and feels that “although much research needs to be done, the evidence that sugar can trigger an addictive process is impressive and convincing, is definitely a public health issue.”

While it is still unclear if sugar is addictive, there is enough evidence to suggest that foods too high in sugar do present public health risks. Shedding light on the dangerous aspects of sugar through research and education will help address the issue of sugar as a national health risk.

Hannah is a Science Club for Girls Media Team member and high school student in Cambridge, MA. See Hannah’s article on Huffington Post and spread the word!

What’s In Our Water?

“That will be one dollar and eighty nine cents, will you be paying in cash?” A bottle of soda or water on a hot day is the ultimate refreshment. We assume the water in that drink is clean, or else they would not sell it. A simple act like buying a bottle of water or soda can change everything – when done with enough frequency. What would you do if you found out the water you drink every day was contaminated with chemicals that can make you sick over time?

Recently, the staff here at MadSciMag discovered that our water sources are being contaminated with chemicals that confuse our bodies (and those of the animals we eat). As we learned from scientists such as Dr. Joan Ruderman, these chemicals are the result of plasticizers in our cans of soup, bottles of soda, and collecting in the water. Pharmaceuticals are not being properly disposed of, and are excreted from our bodies, ending up in our sewage system and finally our water. Seeing that the Clean Water Act, a law that governs water pollution in the United States, has not been updated in twenty years, since before tests for these hormones were commonly available, the EPA doesn’t even require our water to be tested for these chemicals (http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/cwa.html). Every morning all around the world, mothers throw water bottles into their children’s lunch bag with the intention of keeping them healthy and hydrated. But little do they know, there are hidden harms within these water bottles that are affecting their children. Some of the chemicals found in water today are known as “endocrine disruptors,” and the extent of their effects on our health is still barely understood.

What is an Endocrine Disruptor?
Endocrine disruptors are complex chemicals that get into your system and act like the hormones in your body, disrupting the natural balance of hormones and sometimes causing health problems. According to John Reinhardt from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the problem with endocrine disruptors is that they “trigger bodily functions that are normally triggered by real human hormones, which cause the body to react as if there are real human hormones there. The body gets confused – is it real?” Reinhardt goes on to explain that “[e]ndocrine disruptors are very complex chemicals” but, given that the endocrine glands are small, “and the amount of hormones that these glands secrete is really small, to disrupt them takes a very small amount as well.”

These thousands of potentially harmful chemicals are generally byproducts of textiles in clothing, paper, plastic and other manufacturing processes, along with pharmaceuticals that people take. It’s like taking prescription medicines that belong to someone else – it messes up your body because its not for you, and makes your body perform certain functions that are not normal or healthy (http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/bendrep.asp).

Different communities have different levels and routes of exposure to these hormones. Reinhardt explains that although the water that comes into Boston and Cambridge taps is generally considered very clean, “[a]n example of a water supply that’s not as good as this is up in Northeastern Massachusetts in Lowell,” because “[t]hey get their water from the Merrimack River directly.” Though he has not tested to determine whether the Quabbin Reservoir, which serves the Boston Area, has noticeable levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals, given his long history analyzing industrial discharge he is confident the Merrimack has its problems. The Merrimack is the second largest surface drinking water source in New England. It serves a total of 300,000 people through four water treatment plants. The Merrimack has sewage treatment plants upstream of the river where drinking water is collected for the city of Lowell – but these plants do not treat for endocrine disruptors (http://www.nps.gov/lowe/planyourvisit/upload/River.pdf). “Lowell picks it up, treats it, and then distributes it,” Reinhardt explains, so the treated product likely still contains the estrogen from discharged pharmaceuticals and other endocrine-disrupting waste. Another city drinking this water? Our sister program’s hometown of Lawrence, nine miles downstream from Lowell.

Another way our bodies are affected by the chemicals is by the food we eat. To be specific, eating fish. As fish swim around in the water, they pick up all the little bits of chemicals that would not usually affect humans at those levels, but affect them and will affect us on a large scale. For example, zebrafish or herring living upstream from a sewage treatment plant and downstream from factories will take in raw chemicals from manufacturing, many of which are endocrine disruptors. Even the ones downstream from the freshly treated sewage water still show problems. Sometimes it changes the gender of the fish because these endocrine disruptors mimic estrogen, turning some of the fish into females (http://gallery.usgs.gov/audios/3). Even though we may not be eating zebrafish we need to take into consideration the food chain. Fish eat fish. We might be eating a cod fish, which has eaten a lot of smaller fish. Now think about all of the even smaller fish that those fish ate. If you add up all of those chemicals through the food chain, it can affect humans in just the same way that it affected the zebrafish. With all of that extra estrogen, researchers believe females may be getting fertile at earlier ages and males might start gaining female characteristics. This is called bioaccumulation, and as you see though small amounts of these endocrine disruptors may not affect us but when we consume large amounts is can confuse you body.

What are the ways that we can avoid the affects of poor water quality?
In order to prevent being affected from the poor water quality, people should have their water filtered and stay away from the bodies of water that are known for poor water quality. Another way is by disposing prescription drugs properly at a local pharmacy, disposing chemicals properly, and using environmentally friendly products when they can. All of this has to do with whether or not waste is being thrown out in the right way, and if people care enough for their environment to take care of it.

Final thoughts?
We believe that the people need to live where they can enjoy a natural healthy environment. Time is of the essence. How long do the people have to wait until they are assured their safety from water that they use every single day?

What are your final thoughts? Send us your opinion.

Writing and research questions by Tamarra Pierre-Louis, Eniola Tuby Lukan and Imani V. Abraham, with research and additional writing contributed by Olivia Porte, Courtney Ertillien and Cassandra Renaudin.

Sciencettes on a Mission

Our Project:

We love what we do and we’re not stopping here. We are The Sciencettes, a group of teens from the city of Lawrence who investigated the science of cosmetics over the past seven weeks. We are passionate about keeping our bodies and communities healthy, and we want to spread the word.

When we sat down to brainstorm the ways that science relates to our daily lives, cosmetics were a clear link. Many of us use cosmetics daily. In fact, we polled women of all ages at our Community Center, Lawrence Community Works, and we found that the vast majority uses multiple beauty products every single day.

But what is contained in the products we apply to our bodies? According to our poll, few women–ourselves included–bother to read the ingredients on a label before purchasing a product.

So during Week 2, we emptied our own backpacks, purses, and pockets of cosmetics. We read the fine print on each package, and found all sorts of words we’d never heard of and couldn’t pronounce! Some of our lip balms didn’t even have a list of ingredients.

It turns out that some of the “harmless” products we use every day contain chemicals that can be harmful to humans and to the environment. After some research, we found that alumina, an anti-caking agent in some lip balms, is a neurotoxin. That means it can harm the central nervous system and brain!

And phenol, a fragrance and preservative in lip balms, can pollute water and eventually build up in the tissue of animals through the process of bioaccumulation. The US Environmental Protection Agency lists phenol as a priority pollutant in water.

Finding out about all these chemicals made us hungry to learn more. Why do we need to add these items to beauty products? How do companies decide what to put into their products? To find out, we visited a local company to see the science of beauty in action.

Visiting Living Proof

The Sciencettes at Living Proof, learning about hair products

Learning about hair products

At Living Proof, we gained a plethora of information. We talked to the scientists at Living Proof in order to learn how products are made. Eric Spengler, the Senior Vice President of Research & Development at Living Proof, explained to us that his company does not add ingredients to their products unless the ingredients are safe and are needed for the product to work.

We also learned why some chemicals–like preservatives–are necessary to keep products stable in different temperatures and over long time periods. At Living Proof we got to see how products are created and tested. And Betsy Wienslaw, a chemist at Living Proof, told us that she makes sure to try products herself in order to make sure they are good quality.

Making the Lip Balm

“No animals were harmed in the making!”

–Amber Torres, Lawrence 9th Grader

Our poll in Lawrence showed that most women can’t leave the house without lip balm. After seeing the chemicals added to our own lip balms and seeing young female scientists in action at Living Proof, we became inspired to make our own product.

On December 6 we got all the ingredients to make lip balm. We used avocado oil, beeswax, cocoa butter, shea butter, and mango butter. All of our ingredients were organic, and we used environmentally friendly containers–re-used household items like a contact lens case, small Tupperware containers, and a candle holder.

We completed three trials before creating our final lip balm. During each trial we boiled water, placed the ingredients in a separate pot, formed a double boiler, and allowed the ingredients to melt. Then, we poured the mixture into our containers to solidify.

Trial 1: We used ½ cup of beeswax, ½ tablespoon avocado oil, ½ ounce of cocoa butter. The mixture took 3 minutes and 10 seconds to melt. We discovered it was too waxy and not soothing for lips. We needed less beeswax and more butter and oil.

Trial 2: For the second batch we used less beeswax, added more cocoa butter and mango butter, and used more oil. The result was better, but still too waxy. We decided to add more butter to make it softer.

Trial 3: We added all the different types of butter and more oil. The result was softer, smoother and easier to spread. That was our final batch

Over the week we all tried using our new homemade lip balm. Mostly everyone said that the lip balm worked really well, but the texture was a little waxy and the smell wasn’t perfect. If we were to do it again, we would think about adding a scent like vanilla, and a flavor like cherry.

By making this product ourselves, we saw that very few ingredients can create a good beauty product. We learned that beauty products can work well and be good for the environment and for our bodies. Our lip balm doesn’t contain ingredients that cause cancer or harm the environment–and we tested it ourselves!

Over our seven meetings, we learned 21st century skills and how to work together as a team. We saw that science isn’t just about textbooks and bookworms, and scientists don’t always sit behind a desk. They love what they do, each of us uses science in everyday life. To other people our age: Take time to learn about what you put on—and IN—your body.

Sciencettes on a Mission!

On a Mission!