Watching hopped-up kids on Halloween candy may have led many of us to suspect that sugar must be some kind of drug—but beyond that, how many of us know what sweet foods really do to our brains? A new animation by STK films for TED-Ed, “How Sugar Affects the Brain,” explains how foods containing any of the many forms of sugar, from glucose to fructose to starch, affect the same reward systems in our brains that are activated by using drugs like heroin and alcohol or by having sex. Science confirms your suspicions: the sugar rush is real.
“You take a bite of cereal. The sugars it contains activate the sweet taste receptors, part of the taste buds on the tongue,” the video’s narrator, Michelle Snow, explains. “These receptors send a signal up to the brain stem, and from there it forks off into many areas of the forebrain,” parts of which process different tastes. The signal then activates the reward system, a complicated network of neurotransmitters—most importantly, dopamine—which subconsciously helps us decide whether or not to do something again. “That warm fuzzy feeling you get when you taste grandma’s chocolate cake? That’s your reward system saying mmm, yes.”
It’s all good in moderation—but over-activation of this reward system is what leads to those cravings and to an increased tolerance to sugar, a pattern commonly known as addiction. When we call someone a junk food addict or a sugar addict, we might not realize that on a neurochemical level, what they’re dealing with has a lot in common with what happens in the brain of a drug addict. It makes Skittles’ whisper to “Taste the Rainbow” and all that cutesy, colorful candy packaging seem a lot more sinister.