There Are Highly Addictive Ingredients in Your Children’s Medicine

How We Discovered That Sugar and Sweeteners Are More Addictive Than Cocaine!

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Fun Fact Friday – WEEK 169

There Are Highly Addictive Ingredients in Your Children’s Medicine!


What would you say if you found out there was an ingredient in your child’s medicine that is more addictive than cocaine?

What would you say if we told you there’s a good chance you’ve ingested that same ingredient in the past 24 hours?

How would you feel if you found out that it may not be your child’s medicine that elicits their calming, but a highly addictive ingredient that is found in nearly every children’s medicine on the market?

Today we’ll find out just what that ingredient is and what makes it so addictive.



Last week we discovered that the “active ingredient” claimed to be found in some medicines may not be responsible for their calming effects. But, instead, it could be the sweetness of the medicine that was causing it. We discovered something called sweet-induced analgesia. It could actually be the thing that makes some children’s medicines appear to work almost instantly.

You may notice that, in relation to the active ingredients, we said: “claimed to be found”. This is because some of those medicines don’t even contain a measurable amount. We discovered this in week 164 when we looked at the two leading brands of teething powders – Nelsons and Aston and Parsons. We unearthed their hidden ingredients, explained how they work and exposed a dirty trick that one of them uses.

This week we’re delving into a study that is often cited about the dangers and addictive properties of sugar and sweetness.

It was once thought that nicotine had no addictive properties. It wasn’t until it was directly compared to cocaine that public awareness changed. In a bid to try and illustrate the same connection with sugar, scientists began studies on rats. These experiments are often used to illustrate the addictiveness of sugar. But, very often fail to mention that artificial sweeteners were used too, with similar results.

Much of our understanding of the human brain has come from this type of research. Rat experiments are a good model for humans because their brains share much of the structure and connectivity that exists in our brains. Rats also have a sweet tooth. Their ability to self administer most major drugs of abuse, including cocaine and heroin, make them ideal candidates to help us understand the way the brain reacts to drugs. Many breakthroughs have stemmed from this type of research.

In the following experiments, well-fed and watered rats were given the choice between a sweet solution or a self-administered intravenous shot of cocaine.

Rats were faced with a choice between cocaine and sugar or cocaine and an artificial sweetener. Cocaine always lost. But, it wasn’t a slight loss. Cocaine lost every experiment, with every variable that scientists could imagine.

Researchers tried getting the rats hooked to cocaine first and only then would they introduce the sweetened solution. Those cocaine-addicted rats rapidly shifted their preference to sugar.

Next, they tried offering them unfettered access to cocaine for an hour before introducing sugar. The rats self-administered cocaine for the first hour, but almost immediately shifted to sugar once it became available.

The researchers tried varying approaches to check for confounding factors. They eventually concluded that the value of sweet taste is greater than that of intravenous cocaine.

But, how much greater was that value?

The researchers wanted to know too. So, they set about increasing the difficulty of acquiring the sweetened solution until the preference of the rats changed.

They discovered that at the highest amount of effort, where virtually all rats changed their preference to cocaine, was 16 times greater than cocaine.

However, a more important measurement was the point of indifference. The point of indifference happened when there was no clear preference for the sweetened solution or for cocaine. The point when this happened was when the demand for sweetened water was about 8 times greater than that of cocaine. So, if they had a straight choice between cocaine and sugar, but sugar was 8x harder to get, the rats would still choose sugar!


These experiments led to similar studies comparing sweet taste to intravenous heroin. Whilst less dramatic in its discoveries, it did show interesting results. When the rats were offered a choice, most of them cut down their heroin use to drink more sweetened water.


The theory is, that sweet taste somehow triggers the release of endogenous (made in the body) opioids, and there is compelling evidence of this relationship.

In a bid to prove this, researchers used a drug to block the opioid receptors in rats. They found that by doing this they were able to effectively block the effects of a sweetened solution.

Babies younger than 12 hours do not show any benefits. This is because they already have heightened levels of endogenous opioids coursing through their system from the birthing process.

In addition to those, it had been noted that sucrose was ineffective in calming infants suffering from the withdrawal symptoms of opioid use. This indicates that a functioning, intact endogenous opioid system was needed for sweet taste’s benefits to take effect.

To ensure the effect was related only to the taste, endogenous opioid levels were measured in subjects. They received a sweetened solution either orally or directly into the stomach. Heightened levels were only found in those that received the solution orally.



The awareness around sugar is growing and, with the introduction of the sugar tax in 2018, sugar is swiftly being replaced with artificial sweeteners. This is considered a good thing by many and, in light of today’s fact, we imagine many of you may agree. But, don’t be too hasty in grabbing those artificial sweeteners. The studies found similar results with artificial sweeteners too. Because it is sweet taste that produces the effect, it would indicate that sweeteners are as addictive as sugar.

Artificial sweeteners also come with their own set of risks. They’re comparatively new, compared to sugar, and our bodies are poorly equipped to process them. Artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and can alter our taste profile over time, making us increasingly desire sweeter and sweeter foods. There is also a lot of research pointing to sweeteners making us more hungry. The explanation is: When we taste something sweet, our brain and body expect to receive calories in line with that level of sweetness. If the expected calories never arrive, then there is a deficit. This calorie deficit then needs to be rectified, which results in an increased appetite.

But the biggest take away for us, and for most parents, may be in the way our children react to sweetened medicines. Last week explained that their reaction, and the resulting calm that immediately follows, could be caused by sweet-induced analgesia. But, this week leaves us wondering if those reactions may be related to its addictiveness and the fix that comes from having that addiction met.


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