Our brains are hardwired to like sweets. It’s in our DNA, and sweets are a “yardstick for all pleasures,” according to Dr. Alexei B. Kampov-Polevoi, professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. That is why so many people are chocoholics, or can’t pass up a bakery without wanting to go inside and eat something decadent. This then brings about the question, how does taste affect our brains, and what happens when we taste something sweet?

 As children our parents gave us something with a little sweetness, like the taste of a sweet strawberry or a lick of an ice cream, and it usually brings about a big smile. According to Steen Munger, associate professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of Maryland, our ancestors looked at sweet things as usually being non-poisonous, and usually things that were sweet were full of calories to keep fat on their bodies. The desire for sweetness is well rooted in primitive genetics. “All mammals – mice, dogs, humans—with the exception of cats, use the same types of genes and genetic mechanisms to detect sweet flavor,” says Munger. (Cats have since mutated so that they no longer have the gene for detecting sweet food).


Children are more drawn to sweets than adults, and Women are more likely than men to prefer sweet food, which could be due to hormones. “During the menstrual cycle, the mood as well as the desire to eat sweets can fluctuate,” says Dr. Kampov-Polevoi. “That indicates that sex hormones are involved.” According to Danielle Reed, a staff member at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, “Things that I loved as a child just taste so obnoxiously sweet to me now.”

Reed’s research shows that the desire for sweets is linked to stages of development, and that as a child grows their preference and liking for sweets declines. “When you’re growing you need the [extra] calories, and when you stop growing you don’t,” says Reed.

Sweets react in everyone’s brains the same way, but producing chemicals, including dopamine, that creates an “opiate-like effect.” In the United States babies are often offered sugar water just before they get their blood draw. In Sweden, some minor surgeries are performed using sweet-tasting foods, like sugar solutions, as anesthetics. Recovering addicts often turn to sugary snacks when trying to fight their urge to drink or use drugs. 

Your brain needs sugar in order to work right. When your brain gets too much sugar, there is a spike in your brain activity. Some sugar is good for making you feel good, while too much sugar can have the opposite effect. It is always best to keep your sugar levels on an even keel.

No matter how you get your sugar fix, your brain will react the same. That includes sugar substitutes, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup or fructalose. “A sugar is a sugar is a sugar.” The difference is how you consume it, and how you keep your sugar levels even.

Humans process beverages with sweetness differently than the sweetness found in food – that is, by barely responding to it at all. Though our brains associate the taste of sugar with calorie dense food, drinking highly sweet beverages doesn’t impact our caloric impact. When consumers in their study eat 500 calories of sugar-rich food, says Barry Popkin, professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina, they’re likely to eat 500 fewer calories sometime during the day. The same can’t be said of sweet drinks. When researchers stir in spoonfuls of sugar into a regular glass of water, subjects still fail to compensate for those extra calories elsewhere.

According to Popkin, over the last 20 years there has been an increase in calorie consumption due to an increase in the supply of sugary beverages being manufacturer. American obesity can directly be linked to the rise in inexpensively produced soft drinks.

“If you consume caffeine over time, you habituate to it, and it has a different effect,” says Popkin. “With drug use, you habituate to a certain amount of drugs and need more over time. When it comes to sweetness, we don’t understand the long-term effect.” What we do know is that we love to eat sweets, but in this case being sweet may not be such a good things for you.



About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life.



The Daily Beast – The Sweet Science: How our brains react to sugary tastes: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/blogs/the-human-condition/2009/06/25/the-sweet-science-how-our-brain-reacts-to-sugary-tastes.html