Can This Lozenge Curb Your Sugar Cravings?

Can This Lozenge Curb Your Sugar Cravings?

Can This Lozenge Curb Your
Sugar Cravings?

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If you’ve ever thought about dialing back on sugar, you know how hard it can be. Sugar addiction is real. Researchers have found that sugar affects the brain’s reward system in much the same way that drugs like cocaine and heroin do. “The taste of sugar makes us crave more sugar, and the more sugar we eat, the more we crave it,” says Eric Stice, PhD, a neuroscientist at the Oregon Research Institute whose work primarily focuses on identifying risk factors for obesity.

Stice was intrigued when Arianne Perry, the cofounder of a company called Sweet Defeat, asked him to conduct clinical studies on its plant-based lozenge—which, she explained, was developed to help people eat less sugar. Sweet Defeat is made from Gymnema sylvestre, a leafy vine that has been used to suppress the taste of sweetness. To be clear: Sweet Defeat is not meant to curb hunger and it’s not meant to treat obesity or any medical condition. And yes, some goop staffers keep packets of it in their desk drawer for when they want to avoid an afternoon candy spike.

In Stice’s studies, Sweet Defeat did decrease sugar cravings and consumption, and it also suggested something potentially more interesting about the way the reward centers in our brain respond to the taste and anticipation of sweet foods.

A Q&A with Eric Stice, PhD

Why do we get sugar cravings?

Many studies show1 that when we first taste a sweet food, it activates brain reward circuitry, causing a desire for more. If we eat sugary foods repeatedly, our reward and attention circuitry starts to become activated by cues associated with the hedonic reward from eating the sugary food. This could be seeing a candy bar, seeing a store where you’ve bought candy bars, or even a time of day when you typically eat candy bars.

After this conditioning process, mere exposure to these cues—including a single taste of a sweet food—activates the brain’s reward regions that increase the desire to consume these foods, often in the absence of biological hunger.

Is there any science behind having a sweet tooth? Are certain people more likely to have sugar cravings?

Brain-imaging studies show that people at risk for overeating sugary foods initially show a greater response in the brain’s reward circuitry to tastes of sweetened beverages2 . In other words, sweet taste is more pleasurable for a subset of the population—you could call this a “sweet tooth.”

In this subset of the population, our theory is that this greater reward response increases the likelihood of eating sugary foods on a regular basis. This results in a hyper-responsivity of reward and attention circuitry to cues associated with eating those foods. Anything that increases the likelihood of eating sweet foods, such as impulsivity and the easy availability of those foods, makes people more sensitive to food cues, which prompts them to want to consume more of them. Thus, science suggests that sugar cravings are a result of both an initial elevated responsivity of brain reward regions to sweet tastes and this conditioning process.

How does Sweet Defeat work? And is it the same for sugars and sugar substitutes?

Sweet Defeat contains gymnemic acids, extracted from the woody vine Gymnema sylvestre3 , which suppress the taste of sweetness from sugars and sugar substitutes. Because the structure of gymnemic acid molecules is similar to that of glucose molecules, gymnema binds to sweet taste receptors on the tongue, blocking the taste of sugar molecules and preventing the firing of the chorda tympani nerve, which relays taste signalling to the brain.

Sweet Defeat reduces sugar cravings driven by the taste of foods or beverages containing all sweeteners, natural sugar, added sugar, or artificial sweeteners and cravings driven by exposure to cues associated with the pleasure from eating sweet foods.

How have Sweet Defeat and gymnemic acids been studied?

We conducted a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled experiment with sixty-seven adult participants on the effects of using Sweet Defeat gymnemic acid lozenges. We found that participants who took a placebo versus a Sweet Defeat lozenge were 430 percent more likely to eat candy immediately afterward. Those who had a Sweet Defeat reduced their total candy intake by 44 percent.

That same experiment found that a Sweet Defeat lozenge reduced the pleasantness ratings of the candy when it was tasted after having the lozenge. Those who took a Sweet Defeat lozenge were less likely to want to eat candy even before tasting the candy, which suggests that blocking sweet taste receptors may reduce the desire for sweet foods.

We then conducted a follow-up experiment—double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subjects—which will be published by Physiology & Behavior in October. We used brain imaging to test whether a Sweet Defeat lozenge reduces the reward region response in the brain to the taste of sweetened beverages and to the anticipated taste—aka the desire or craving for sweetened beverages. We looked at key reward valuation centers in the brain: We found that those who took a Sweet Defeat lozenge had a reduced striatum and orbitofrontal cortex response to the anticipation of tasting a milkshake. They also had a reduced dorsolateral prefrontal cortex response to the actual taste of a milkshake. Taking a Sweet Defeat lozenge reduced the consumption of candy by 52 percent, replicating results from the first behavioral experiment and research conducted by others.

In addition, the second experiment provided evidence that an initial taste of a sweet food increases reward region response in anticipation of eating more of the sweet food.

It is also critical to note that in all studies, participants were blinded and unaware that Sweet Defeat contains gymnema and that their sense of sweet taste would be suppressed. We were very interested to find that the desire for sugary foods was reduced immediately following the Sweet Defeat versus the placebo.

What’s the ideal way to use Sweet Defeat? Do you have to take it regularly?

I recommend eating three healthy meals a day and taking Sweet Defeat at times you might feel the desire for sugary foods. For example: after breakfast, in a late-afternoon energy slump, or in the evening after dinner. Theoretically, taking Sweet Defeat after meals should reduce a craving for dessert. And using Sweet Defeat before being exposed to high-sugar food cues—before the dessert menu comes out at a restaurant, before grocery shopping, or before going to a movie where sweet foods are often heavily advertised—should reduce sugar cravings induced by exposure to these food cues.

One important distinction is that Sweet Defeat is not an appetite suppressant. If you are hungry, a sweet defeat lozenge will not suppress biological hunger. This is why we think it’s important to consume three healthy meals a day and to avoid long periods of caloric deprivation, as this ironically increases the reward value of high-sugar foods.

What are the other ingredients in Sweet Defeat and what do they do?

In addition to Gymnema sylvestre, the ingredients are zinc, mint, sorbitol, and spirulina. Zinc works synergistically with the gymnemic acids. Mint and sorbitol are common ingredients in gum and breath mints, and they’re included for flavor. Spirulina is used for its natural blue color—it’s an algae-based superfood you may recognize from green juices and smoothies.

Why are sugar and curbing sugar cravings a focus of your work?

A primary focus of my research is the identification of risk factors that predict future obesity onset and the evaluation of interventions that prevent obesity. The overconsumption of high-sugar foods in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, and foods with added sugars is a key driver of the positive energy balance that causes obesity. Randomized experiments4 have provided evidence that the consumption of high-sugar foods contributes to excessive weight gain. For instance, one intervention designed to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage intake produced a reduction in weight gain compared to control participants. These studies highlight the health benefits of a low-sugar diet. And we have found that the higher response of brain reward circuitry5 to food cues and the anticipated consumption of high-sugar foods is a potent risk factor for excess weight gain.

Randomized trials have found that obesity prevention programs that we have developed—involving nutrition and exercise education—produce a 40 to 50 percent reduction in future obesity onset compared to controls6 .

We haven’t tested this yet, but I hope to conduct randomized trials to evaluate whether Sweet Defeat used in isolation or in combination with proven interventions might reduce unhealthy weight gain.

What else can people do to help curb sugar cravings and balance blood sugar?

These emerging neuroscience findings suggest that breaking the association between sweet foods and pleasure may be the best way to reduce cravings for and intake of high-sugar foods. We have found that cognitive reappraisals and food response and attention training are other effective approaches.

This is how cognitive reappraisals work: When most people see sweet foods, such as candy, it causes increased activation of reward circuitry and deactivation of inhibition circuitry. Research has found that if instead of thinking about consuming the high-sugar foods, people think about the negative long-term health consequences of eating such foods, it reduces the activation of reward regions and increases the activation of inhibitory regions. We found that training individuals to use cognitive reappraisals when confronted by tempting high-calorie foods resulted in significantly smaller increases in body fat than those observed in control participants.

Eric Stice, PhD, is a senior research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute. His work focuses on identifying risk factors for the onset of eating disorders, obesity, depression, and drug abuse, as well as the development and evaluation of prevention programs. He completed his PhD in clinical psychology at Arizona State University; an internship at the University of California, San Diego; and a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University.

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies. They are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop. This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

1Several studies have examined the role of brain reward systems in overeating and obesity. One study showed that compulsive eating in obese rats shared brain reward systems similar to those of human drug addicts.
2One study found that teens at high risk of obesity showed a greater response in the brain’s reward regions to high-sugar milkshakes than to a tasteless solution.
3The sweet-suppressing effect of Gymnema sylvestre has been studied in humans and chimpanzees. A 2011 systematic review of gymnema noted that “studies have shown that gymnema reduces the perception of sweetness inside the mouth.”
4One systematic review evaluated more than thirty published trials and concluded that there is a direct correlation between the consumption of sugar and body weight. Another review looked at the relation between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain.
5Researchers have tested the brain’s reward region in response to food commercials and found that an elevated caudate response correlated with weight gain over a one-year period. Another study led by Stice looked at whether elevated reward response predicted body fat gain using milkshakes.
6Stice’s obesity prevention study looked at 481 female high school and college students who felt unhappy with their bodies and divided them into four groups, including a healthy-weight program that taught participants about nutrition and encouraged exercise as a means of achieving healthier weight and body ideals. The effects continued for as long as three years after the program’s end.