Drugs used to treat nicotine addiction could be applied to treat similar addictions to sugar, according to the new study from the Queensland University of Technology published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The researchers found sugar affects the same "reward pathways" in the brain as tobacco, drugs and alcohol, meaning high-sugar foods can be just as addictive. Excess consumption has also been shown to lead to a reduction in the levels of dopamine released when a sugary food is eaten, which can lead to "higher consumption of sugar to get the same level of reward".
"Our study found that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs like varenicline, a prescription medication trading as Champix which treats nicotine addiction, can work the same way when it comes to sugar cravings," lead study author, professor Selena Bartlett, said.
The research - so far only tested on animals - could be a significant breakthrough in the war on obesity.
The latest World Health Organization statistics show 1.9 billion people worldwide are overweight, of which 600 million are considered obese. George Osborne's sugar tax, announced in the Budget last month, is part of a government effort to tackle obesity - particularly affecting children - in the UK.
"Interestingly, our study also found that artificial sweeteners such as saccharin could produce effects similar to those we obtained with table sugar, highlighting the importance of reevaluating our relationship with sweetened food per se," PhD researcher Masroor Shariff added.
Professor Bartlett said varenicline acted as a neuronal nicotinic receptor modulator (nAChR) and similar results were observed with other such drugs including mecamylamine and cytisine.
"Like other drugs of abuse, withdrawal from chronic sucrose exposure can result in an imbalance in dopamine levels and be as difficult as going ‘cold turkey’ from them. Further studies are required but our results do suggest that current FDA-approved nAChR drugs may represent a novel new treatment strategy to tackle the obesity epidemic," she added.
"I think there are some valid points being made in this research. Nicotine, sugar and caffeine all work on similar neural processes, and if these processes are interrupted, then perhaps an individual would be more motivated and helped to quit earlier," Dr Bijal Chheda-Varma, practitioner psychologist at Nightingale Hospital in London, said.
"However, we must remember that the individual would likely suffer stronger psychological withdrawal symptoms. If we look at the very generic theories around sugar, it's been on the rise for a long time now and - even if we don't drink or smoke - we live with this addiction every day."