Ever wondered why is soda so addictive?
We’ve all felt it before. You reach out for a cold soft drink and savor the flavor.
But once you’re done, you’re looking for more…
For some people it may be right after finishing the first can of soda. For others it may be tomorrow or the day after.
But one thing’s for sure, you’ll be back for more…
In this article we dive deep into what makes soda addictive.
Soda is Loaded with Sugar
The primary reason sodas are so addictive is their sugar content.
With no fiber, fat or protein present to slow absorption into the bloodstream, drinking a 12 ounce can of soda instantly delivers 40 grams of sugar to the body.
Sugar contain empty calories, it’s there for the sweet flavor that our palate can’t get enough of. Other than that, it doesn’t contain other nutrients.
This is why the World Health Organization (WHO) in recent years slashed its recommended daily sugar intake to 5% of total calories, from the previous 10%.
For the average adult, this works up to around 25 grams of sugar or 6 teaspoons, which is much less than what’s contained in a 12 oz. can of soda.
What Happens to the Brain When You Drink Soda
Consuming sugar, from soda and other sources, activates the brain’s pleasure center, which triggers the release of a variety of chemicals in the body, including dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is linked with many functions of the brain, like mood regulation and reward. This feeling is what makes us seek more of it because of the rewards it brings us, in this case the pleasure from sugar’s sweetness.
In addition to sugar consumption, alcohol and drug use also trigger dopamine release, which is what makes those habits likewise addictive in nature.
With the help of dopamine, the brain associates consuming sugar and soda with good feelings, and so the body begins to crave soda. Addiction forms as prolonged consumption of soda and sugar causes the effects of dopamine to be blunted in the brain.
This means that more sugar and soda is continually needed to achieve the same mood boosting effect.
This cycle not only leads the body to constantly crave sugar and soda, but to need increasingly more soda to satisfy the craving.
Soda’s Effects on Hormones
Sugar and soda consumption impacts hormone levels as well.
Because our body’s control center, the nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord, isn’t directly connected to all our body parts, it needs a way to control them.
Hormones are substances secreted by the endocrine glands that act as chemical messengers. They travel via our bloodstream to our tissues and organs in order to relay the message from our brain. One example of how hormones work is when it makes our body sweat when we feel warm to cool itself.
The rapid uptake of sugar into the bloodstream after drinking soda triggers the release of the hormone insulin to stabilize blood sugar levels.
An increase in insulin means that the body cannot produce the needed levels of a compound called sex hormone binding globulin, which binds to excess estrogen and testosterone.
Too much estrogen can cause mood swings and depression, which leads to sugar and soda cravings, and starts the cycle again.
An increase in insulin also leads to an increase in cortisol, another hormone most commonly associated with stress and weight gain.
When cortisol increases, thyroid hormone production decreases, which can slow metabolism, and lead to depression and fatigue.
As the brain has associated soda with an increase in mood, thanks to the effect of sugar on dopamine release, an individual might be tempted to counteract this depression and energy dip with a soda.
And so the addiction (and vicious cycle) begins…
Diet sodas, though they don’t contain sugar, also have addictive properties.
In the place of the refined white sugar that’s found in regular sodas, manufacturers use artificial sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose (Diet Pepsi) and aspartame (Diet Coke) are synthetic sugar substitutes, they are able to deliver more sweetness compared to regular table sugar.
The main advantage of these ingredients is that unlike sugar, they don’t contain calories, which is why diet drinks are often labeled “no calorie” or “low calorie”.
Artificial Sweeteners Effects on the Brain
Like sugar, the artificial sweeteners used in diet sodas also trigger the brain’s pleasure center, leading to the same dopamine and neurotransmitter release, and creating the same addictive response as regular soda.
Diet sodas also trigger cravings and increased consumption in an additional and more subtle way.
Though the pleasure center of the brain is triggered by artificial sweeteners, the reaction is not identical to the one produced by sugar consumption.
When artificial sweeteners are sensed on the tongue, signals are sent to the brain to expect sugar, containing calories which are used for energy.
When this expectation is not met, and no nutrition can be gleaned from the artificial sweeteners, the brain triggers a craving for more.
So while the concept of diet sodas was genius, its actual resultant effects on consumers backfired.
These drinks weren’t only supposed to give you a no-sugar beverage but also lower calorie consumption. Studies however, have shown that the effects of diet sodas are actually reversed.
Instead of preventing weight gain, multiple studies have found that those who consumed diet drinks ended with higher body mass indices (BMI) compared to non-diet beverage drinkers. BMI is a measurement of one’s weight relative to their height. They also had larger waistlines and more belly fat.
The Caffeine Factor
Another compound that makes both diet and regular soda so addictive is caffeine.
Note that not all sodas, be it regular or diet contain caffeine.
In general, colas and most root beers contain caffeine, so various versions of Pepsi and Coke include it as their ingredients.
If you want to avoid the caffeine, go for non-cola options like Sprite or 7-Up. Though we recommend ditching sodas all together.
That said, on average, colas contain around 25 to 60 mg of caffeine in a 12 oz. bottle. To compare, a cup of coffee, which is around 8 ounces, contains between 95 to 200 mg of caffeine. The total amount will depend on the brand and whether you make your coffee at home or purchase it from a coffee shop.
While the caffeine content is considerably less than what you get from coffee, the amount still can add up since most soda drinkers don’t stop at 1 can or bottle. Plus, caffeine isn’t without its addictive effects.
How Caffeine Affects the Brain
Caffeine is able to pass through the blood brain barrier and enter the brain pretty rapidly after consumption.
Once in the brain, caffeine binds to the adenosine receptors, preventing adenosine from binding. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter which creates a feeling of drowsiness. The excess adenosine that is free in the brain triggers the release of adrenaline – a potent stimulant – as the brain attempts to achieve equilibrium.
Over time, the brain adapts to the caffeine intake by creating more adenosine receptors. This means that more caffeine is needed to achieve the same results as before.
This increase in adenosine receptors also leads to more adenosine uptake when caffeine is not present, and thus the individual becomes even more tired, and craves caffeinated soda for a burst of energy.