Is a Sweet Tooth a Sign of Alcoholism?


Almost all kids love sweets. Candy, chocolate, cookies, you name it, they are a big deal in the kid world.

Unfortunately, for some children having a sweet tooth may be linked to a higher likelihood of depression and alcoholism as adults. According to researchers at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, the joy we feel when we eat something sweet activates many of the same pathways in the brain as alcohol.  They conducted a study of 300 children, aged five to 12, in which their preferred level of sweetness was  assessed by giving them five levels of sucrose (table sugar). Their mothers provided details on family history of alcohol use, and the children were quizzed to determine the presence of any depressive symptoms.

Forty-nine percent of the children had a family history of alcoholism involving a close relative (parent, sibling, aunt, uncle), and about 25% of the children had symptoms of depression. Out of the 300 participants, 37 children who had a preference for intense sweetness also had a family history of alcoholism and reported symptoms of depression.  Specifically, these children liked a level of sweetness equivalent to 14 teaspoons of sugar in a cup of water, or over twice the level of sweetness in a cola. Their sugar preference level was one third higher than the preference levels of the other participants.

The researchers cautioned that the results do not mean there’s a direct correlation between the intensity of ones’ sweet tooth early in life and alcoholism later in life. Past studies have shown that sweets make children feel good, and to a degree act as pain relievers. Studies in adults have shown that sweets, particularly chocolate, eases symptoms of depression.

In a society at war with obesity, and looking for ways to cut the amount of sugary foods children have in their diets, these findings may indicate the need for new strategies to reach this segment of the population.  “It may be that even higher levels of sweetness are needed to make depressed children feel better,” said developmental psychobiologist and lead author Julie A. Mennella, PhD in a written statement.