A Gateway Drug For Higher Teen Alcohol Consumption

Major alcohol brands like Seagram’s, Smirnoff and Jack Daniels are now making sweetened coolers containing alcohol. These drinks appeal to younger drinkers who aren’t necessarily interested in “hard” liquor. The sugar content in these drinks may also drive higher consumption among teens and college-aged drinkers, says a new study.

There is an old bar joke about the woman who walks up to the bar and asks for a strong drink, but one where she can’t taste the alcohol. This new generation of alcoholic beverages may well be answering that call. Higher sugar levels in many of these drinks masks the alcohol taste. This quality makes them more appealing to younger, less experienced drinkers, including teens and college students.

Now, a University of Guelph professor has set out to prove that high-fructose corn syrup, which is used in many of these coolers and concoctions, can drive increased consumption among the target market for those drinks. It may even be responsible for stimulating harmful levels of consumption in some people.

They may even lead to higher consumption of other alcoholic beverages. Parents and college students should take note of these dangers, says psychology professor Francesco Leri.

“The more sweetened drinks that an adolescent drinks, the more likely they are to drink alcohol that is not sweetened,” said Leri, who led the study with help from master’s student Samantha Ayoub and psychology professor Linda Parker.

Previous similar studies have shown that rats will drink more alcohol when it is sweetened with glucose or sucrose. Like those earlier studies about adolescent and young adult drinking behaviors, this study indicates that sweetened alcoholic beverages are essentially a “gateway drug” for alcohol consumption.

Teens and young adults get started with the sweet, delicious stuff and move on to the “hard” stuff. Once introduced to alcohol consumption, they begin to like alcohol itself, sweet or not.

For this study, though, researchers wanted to know if high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) would have the same effect as other sugars. HFCS is the sweetener of choice for many coolers and other drinks, making up as much as 25 percent of the volume of some drinks. The study was published, appropriately enough, in the journal Alcohol.


The research team tested various proportions of alcohol sweetened by a 25 percent volume of HFCS. While rats usually turn up their noses at alcohol, adding the HFCS created a very different outcome.

The corn syrup altered the palatability of the drinks, as measured by observation of how much the rats licked their snouts. The sweetened alcohol drinks got the rats drinking in a big way.

“Most rats don’t voluntarily drink alcohol by itself. The moment we added HFCS, there was a huge increase in consumption,” said Leri.

Apparently, the little rodents were “binge drinking.” When drinks containing 25 percent HFCS and 10 percent alcohol were offered to the rats, some of them drank the rodent equivalent of 4 1/2 beers in 30 minutes. The researchers didn’t measure blood alcohol, but it probably wouldn’t have been a good time for a spin on the exercise wheel!

Mixing the booze with saccharine also increased consumption, but not as much as the mixture with the HFCS.

Previously, Leri had studied how HFCS affects the brain. Here he just wanted to know if sweetening the alcohol would lead to higher consumption of other addictive substances like alcohol.

His conclusion was that drinking the sweetened coolers will make it easier to get used to the taste of the actual alcohol, even if someone doesn’t like it at first.

“Most people that don’t like the taste of alcohol in a drink will drink sweetened coolers. We think they get an introduction to alcohol via sweeteners.”

Professor Leri suggested parents have a conversation about what these sweetened coolers really are and what they can lead to. He also noted that the beverage makers should consider using natural sweeteners, such as cane sugar. He also believes they may want to refrain from marketing those drinks to younger consumers.

“Because it’s sweet and tastes like pop doesn’t make it any safer than a straight can of beer or glass of wine. Alcohol is alcohol no matter what. Because alcohol is sweet, there’s a danger of over-drinking. It’s important to monitor the amount taken, especially when it’s mixed with other substances. It’s just another drug of addiction, that’s all it is.”

It all starts out great. The drink tastes sweet and delicious and you want to have another one. But it might be the gateway to addiction. Parents, have that conversation with your teens. Later on, when they avoid that addiction, you’ll be glad you did.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Teens Using Cannabis Risk Depression, Anxiety in Adulthood
Teen Cannabis Harmful to Brain Function
Poor Sleep Quality And Teenage Depression

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Journal Reference – Samantha M. Ayoub, Meenu Minhas, Thomas Lapointe, Cheryl L. Limebeer, Linda A. Parker, Francesco Leri. Effects of high fructose corn syrup on ethanol self-administration in rats. Alcohol, 2020; 87: 79 DOI: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2020.05.003

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