Heritability of high sugar consumption through drinks and the genetic correlation with substance use1,2

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High sugar consumption contributes to the rising prevalence of obesity. Sugar can have rewarding effects that are similar to, but less strong than, the effects of addictive substances. People who consume large amounts of sugar also tend to use more addictive substances, but it is unclear whether this is due to shared genetic or environmental risk factors.


We examined whether there are genetic influences on the consumption of sugar-containing drinks and whether genetic factors can explain the association with substance use.


The frequency of consumption of sugar-containing drinks (e.g., cola, soft drinks, and energy drinks) and addictive substances (nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, cannabis, and illicit drugs) was obtained for 8586 twins who were registered at the Netherlands Twin Register (women: 68.7%; mean ± SD age: 33.5 ± 15.3 y). Participants were categorized as high or low sugar consumers (>1 compared with ≤1 SD above daily consumption in grams) and as high or low substance users (≥2 compared with <2 substances). Through bivariate genetic modeling, genetic and environmental influences on sugar consumption, substance use, and their association were estimated.


Genetic factors explained 48% of the variation in high sugar consumption, whereas unique environmental factors explained 52%. For high substance use, these values were 62% and 38%, respectively. There was a moderate phenotypic association between high sugar consumption and high substance use (r = 0.2), which was explained by genetic factors (59%) and unique environmental factors (41%).


The positive association between high sugar consumption and high substance use was partly due to unique environmental factors (e.g., social situations). Genetic factors were also of influence, suggesting that neuronal circuits underlying the development of addiction and obesity are related. Further research is needed to identify genes that influence sugar consumption and those that overlap with substance use.

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