Study Title:

Sweet Desire, Alcoholism, and Depression

Study Abstract

Aim To determine whether depression and family history of alcoholism are associated with heightened sweet preferences in children, before they have experienced alcohol or tobacco and at a time during the life-span when sweets are particularly salient.

Design Between- and within-subject experimental study.

Participants Children, 5–12 years old (n = 300), formed four groups based on family history of alcohol dependence up to second-degree relatives [positive (FHP) versus negative (FHN)] and depressive symptoms as determined by the Pictorial Depression Scale [depressed (PDEP) versus non-depressed (NDEP)].

Measurements Children were tested individually to measure sucrose preferences, sweet food liking and, for a subset of the children, the analgesic properties of sucrose versus water during the cold pressor test.

Findings The co-occurrence of having a family history of alcoholism and self-reports of depressive symptomatology was associated significantly with a preference for a more concentrated sucrose solution, while depressive symptomatology alone was associated with greater liking for sweet-tasting foods and candies and increased pain sensitivity. Depression antagonized the analgesic properties of sucrose.

Conclusions While children as a group innately like sweets and feel better after eating them, the present study reveals significant contributions of family history of alcoholism and depression to this effect. Whether the heightened sweet preference and the use of sweets to alleviate depression are markers for developing alcohol-related problems or responses that are protective are important areas for future research

From press release:

Depression and a family history of alcoholism may play a role in how much of a sweet tooth a child has, new research suggests.

"We know that sweet taste is rewarding to all kids and makes them feel good. In addition, certain groups of children may be especially attracted to intense sweetness due to their underlying biology," study author Julie A. Mennella, a developmental psychobiologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, said in a news release from the center.

The new study included 300 children, aged 5 to 12, who were given tastes of five amounts of table sugar (sucrose) in water to determine their most preferred level of sweetness. The children were asked about the presence of depressive symptoms, and their mothers provided information on family alcohol use. About one-quarter of the children had depressive symptoms and 49 percent had a family history of alcoholism.

A liking for intense sweetness was greatest in the 37 children with both depressive symptoms and a family history of alcoholism, the researchers found. Among these children, their most preferred level of sweetness was 24 percent sucrose, equivalent to about 14 teaspoons of sugar in a cup of water and more than twice the sweetness of typical cola. This level of sweetness is one-third more intense than the 18 percent sucrose preferred by the other children.

It's known that sweet taste and alcohol activate many of the same reward circuits in the brain. But Mennella said the study findings don't necessarily mean there's a link between a child's sweet preferences and the risk of alcoholism later in life.

"At this point, we don't know whether this higher 'bliss point' for sweets is a marker for later alcohol use," she said.

The study results were published online Feb. 9 in the journal Addiction

Study Information

Julie A. Mennella, M. Yanina Pepino, Sara M. Lehmann-Castor, Lauren M. Yourshaw
Sweet preferences and analgesia during childhood: effects of family history of alcoholism and depression.
2010 February
Monell Chemical Senses Center, 3500 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA

Full Study