A study aiming to settle the question of whether sugar is addictive wins one of 17 HRC Explorer Awards.

Dr Simone Rodda
Dr Simone Rodda is testing whether sugar should be treated like other addictions.

It can be incredibly hard to resist the lure of lollies, cupcakes and other sweet treats, especially for those of us with a sweet tooth. But what if this craving for sugary foods wasn’t a lifestyle choice but a sign of a sugar addiction?  

University of Auckland addiction specialist Dr Simone Rodda has received a Health Research Council (HRC) Explorer Grant to examine an innovative approach to understanding why some people find it difficult to moderate their sugar consumption. 

Dr Rodda’s study will look at whether sugar is an addictive substance that produces similar symptoms to those experienced with nicotine, alcohol or caffeine addiction, such as craving, withdrawal, and loss of control. 

Excessive sugar consumption has been linked to a host of health problems, including weight gain, metabolic syndrome, dental cavities, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

The World Health Organization recommends that free sugars make up no more than 10 percent of a person’s daily energy intake – approximately 12 teaspoons of sugar a day – and no more than 5 percent for better health.1

However, more than half of all New Zealanders consume more than 10 percent of their daily energy intake as sugar.  

“Sugar is currently considered an ordinary commodity and population-level efforts to help people cut back on it have focused on education, sugar tax, better food labelling or dietary approaches that recommend moderation and self-control, says Dr Rodda. 

“Despite these public health measures, however, New Zealanders continue to consume sugar at alarming rates,” she says. 

For this study, Dr Rodda and her team will recruit New Zealanders who consume more than 10 percent of their daily energy intake as free sugar and then ask them to reduce their sugar intake considerably.  

An innovative way of reliably monitoring the participants’ food and drink intake called Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) will be used to track patterns of sugar consumption, withdrawal, craving and relapse in real time.

It will deliver multiple mini surveys across a 24-hour period via smartphone to establish any direct relationships between sugar consumption and addiction symptoms.

One of the main benefits of EMA is that it avoids the problem of people struggling to remember what, why, when and how much they consumed on any given day or week.

Dr Rodda says EMA technology has been successfully used to assess dietary intake and to study addictive behaviours, such as alcohol and tobacco use, however, not to her knowledge to examine sugar consumption patterns or predictors of sugar withdrawal or craving.

In addition to in-the-moment surveys, the team will do baseline assessments that should help them tell who is more susceptible to becoming addicted to sugar.  

“In gambling, one of the things we know is a predictor of whether people will develop an addiction is having a big win early on. If they have had a big win, they tend to chase that feeling. With excess sugar consumption, it might be that you’re more susceptible because of childhood factors like your parents gave you sweets as a reward or that you have addictive tendencies.

"These are the sorts of areas we will eventually investigate following on from this study,” says Dr Rodda. 

HRC Chief Executive Professor Sunny Collings says the idea of sugar being addictive diverges from current thinking and, if found to be true, could potentially lead to new treatment pathways for those who struggle to say "no" to sugar, including addiction treatment services or non-dietary approaches. 

“If this study can help provide evidence that sugar is addictive, then this could challenge the idea of ‘everything in moderation’ as people who develop any addiction often find it difficult to consume in moderation,” says Professor Collings. 

Dr Rodda’s study is one of 17 HRC Explorer Grants announced on 12 May worth a combined total of $2.55 million.

All the Explorer Grants have a focus on innovative and transformative research and are an example of cutting-edge, higher-risk investment.  

See below for the full list of 2022 Explorer Grant recipients. To read lay summaries about any of these research projects, go to hrc.govt.nz/resources/research-repository and filter by proposal type ‘Explorer Grants’ and year ‘2022’.

1. Free sugars include monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates. 

2022 Explorer Grant recipients 

Dr Venkata Chelikani, Lincoln University  

  • The warfare between bacteria and bacteriophage, its benefits to humankind 24 months, $150,000  

Dr Benjamin Compton, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington 

Self-assembling therapeutic nanovaccines for cancer  24 months, $150,000 

Dr Christoph Goebl, University of Otago, Christchurch  

  • A novel and simple tool for tumour diagnosis and treatment prognosis 24 months, $150,000 

Dr Tracy Hale, Massey University  

  • PIN1ng down heterochromatin to prevent cellular ageing 24 months, $150,000 

Associate Professor Anthony Hickey, the University of Auckland 

  • Novel approaches to support patients in acute settings  24 months, $150,000  

Dr Sheng Chiong Hong, oDocs Eye Care  

  • A novel non-invasive technology platform for intracranial pressure measurement 24 months, $150,000 

Associate Professor Rajesh Katare, University of Otago  

  • Salivary microRNAs as prognostic biomarkers of heart disease 24 months, $150,000 

Dr Liping Pang, ESR Institute of Environmental Science & Research  

  • Preventing Legionellosis: New technology to test engineered water systems 24 months, $150,000 

Professor Anthony Phillips, the University of Auckland 

  • The gut gets going 24 months, $150,000 

Professor Anthony Phillips, the University of Auckland 

  • Pumping gas the right way 24 months, $150,000 

Dr Rachel Purcell, University of Otago, Christchurch  

Circulating bacterial DNA for early detection of metastasis in colorectal cancer 24 months, $150,000 

Dr Robin Quigg, University of Otago

  • Hauora Māori me kā papa takaro ki Ōtepōti/Māori health & parks: a Dunedin study 24 months, $150,000 

Dr Andrew Reynolds, University of Otago  

  • Free healthy groceries in heart attack recovery: He kai ora, he oraha manawa 24 months, $150,000 

Dr Simone Rodda, the University of Auckland 

  • Hooked on sugar: Addiction or lifestyle choice? 24 months, $150,000

Dr Vickie Shim, the University of Auckland

  • A storm in the brain - analysing brain network disruptions after mTBI 24 months, $150,000 

Dr Pratik Thakkar, the University of Auckland

  • Novel targets within the carotid body for treating cardiometabolic disease 24 months, $150,000 

Dr Alexander Tups, University of Otago

  • Glucoregulation by leptin: The missing piece to the puzzle of tissue repair? 24 months, $150,000  

Media enquiries

Aileen Coombe HRC communications manager
09 300 5220
E: acoombe@hrc.govt.nz