Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Sugar Addiction Works

Why Sugar Consumption Is A Problem Today
Some brands of barbecue sauce and ketchup are loaded with sugar.
Some brands of barbecue sauce and ketchup are loaded with sugar.

Food manufacturers weren't always dumping massive amounts of sugar into our food. This bad habit started around 1980, when fats were suddenly deemed verboten. With public health officials warning us against eating so much saturated fat and cholesterol, we began slashing our consumption of eggs, meat, full-fat dairy products and eggs. The food industry, in return, rolled out a whole host of low-fat and no-fat products (a la SnackWell's cookies). But if you take fats out of food, it doesn't taste very good. Fats give food flavor. So food manufacturers swapped fats with sugar [source: Gunnars].

Before long, Americans, as well as people in other parts of the world, were ingesting horrendously high amounts of added sugars. How much? As of 2014, Americans were consuming 22 to 30 teaspoons (88 to 120 grams) of sugar per day [source: American Heart Association]. (The organization recommends a daily maximum of 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men.) To hide this fact, the food industry gave the sugar it added all sorts of creative names, such as evaporated cane juice, dextrose, malt syrup, agave nectar and brown rice syrup.

With more sugar in everything we were eating and drinking, our taste buds naturally begin to crave sweetness. We also became more likely to reach for the M&Ms because of the spike-and-crash phenomenon. When we eat refined sugar and starches, they flood into our bloodstream very quickly -- more quickly than many other foods. This causes a glucose (sugar) spike. When our glucose spikes, our bodies produce the hormone insulin to divert the sugar from our bloodstream into our cells. The increased insulin tells our body to form fat and to release more cortisol (a stress hormone that increases inflammation) and even adrenaline, causing a sort of sugar high, which is pleasurable. But the sugar high is temporary; soon there's a crash, as our blood sugar levels return to normal. Unfortunately, our bodies then want more sugar to sustain the energy and high. It becomes a vicious cycle [sources: Eliaz, Thompson].

Although we've been ingesting massive quantities of added sugars for several decades now, hope is on the horizon. The Food and Drug Administration is proposing that the amount of added sugars be included on the "nutrition facts" label found on most packaged foods in the U.S. and that portion sizes reflect reality. No one really eats half a frozen dinner or drinks half of a 20-ounce bottle of soda – though the nutrition labels sometimes pretend that people do. Ideally, the food industry will take some responsibility, too, and begin scaling back on the added sugars -- and not substitute them with something else we'll later discover is detrimental to our health.