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Watch: Is our sugar addiction killing us?

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Make 2022 your best year yet and let this Moon Reading decode your destiny with precise wisdom you can’t find anywhere else!

If you think that using artificial sweeteners is a healthy alternative to processed sugar, you may be setting yourself up for major health issues down the line. Just months ago, Cleveland Clinic functional medicine specialist Melissa Young, MD, made clear she believes real sugar is better for you than many of the artificial sweeteners on the market. And since artificial sweeteners can be used only in moderation, what really needs attention is our nearly impossible-to-satisfy craving for sugar on our quest to make healthier choices.

ThePowerBloc’s Marc Lamont Hill spoke to Dr. Yolandra Hancock about what Black America needs to do to curb this sugar addiction.

The following is a transcript of that conversation.

A mix of sugar varieties is shown: unbleached, brown and white, refined and unrefined, granulated and cubed. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Marc Lamont Hill: Welcome back to theGrio. A not-so-sweet debate is happening now concerning your health. The World Health Organization says the artificial sweetener aspartame, which is used in low-calorie products like sugar-free Jell-O and Diet Coke, is possibly carcinogenic to humans. That means that it could cause cancer. Aspartame has been widely used since the 1980s under brand names like NutraSweet and Equal. Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it’s aware of the report, but that quote does not mean that aspartame is actually linked to cancer. Sugar abuse contributes to the many health issues that disproportionately impact us, and now, the Black community has to recognize that we have a long and complicated history of sugar use and abuse, according to historian Dr. Santelli Sherman. Farming sugar cane helped fuel slavery around the diaspora. She says millions of poor black families used a very sweet evaporated milk mixed with water as baby formula for generations.

Now, I think it’s time for the Black community to break our addiction to sugar — and I’m speaking about myself, too, quite personally. We also have to start cultivating healthier habits for future generations.

Joining me now is Dr. Yolandra Hancock, a pediatrician and a health and wellness expert. Doc, so good to see you. What are some of the tactics that the sugar industry uses to convince people to consume more? Because it feels like there’s a strategy at play here. 

Dr. Yolandra Hancock: Absolutely. I think it first starts with politics. I think that the sugar addiction is a legislated illness. When we think about the farm bill and how we facilitate the growth of corn, and that facilitates the establishment of high fructose corn syrup. You find high fructose corn syrup even in baby formulas. And so, it starts there with policy, but then, it’s perpetuated in the beverage industry, in the food industry, where we’re just inundated with sugar. When you look at certain products, things that don’t even make sense, to have the levels of sugar that they do, like ketchup, further facilitate our sugar addiction.

You know, I’m from Louisiana. My poppa, my great grandfather was a sugar cane sharecropper. So, that article really hits close to home because we were enslaved because of sugar. Back during the time of slavery. But we continue to be enslaved by sugar, given how addictive it is.

There are studies that show that the same center of the brain that gets triggered with cocaine gets triggered with sugar, and that facilitates dopamine release. And when you release dopamine, and it feels good, even with the strongest will power, your body physiologically will still crave it. And this starts as early as in the womb. Taste preference actually begins in the womb. Our taste buds on our tongues are activated to be attracted to sweet. It’s a survival mechanism. Breast milk is sweet. I’m going to search for what is sweet. But as we continue to perpetuate the cycle, with the introduction early of juices and other sugary drinks with our children, and then we’re doing it ourselves, we further continue to allow ourselves to be caught up, as Black people, in this vicious cycle. 

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Hill: Now, it’s interesting because, you know, growing up, I heard sugar was bad, but, you know, I didn’t understand. It’s really not until I was an adult and really even a parent, you know, that I fully understood how much stuff has sugar in it, and stuff that, you know, I thought was healthy wasn’t, and stuff that I counted as healthy, even if it was sweet, like certain fruits. I didn’t realize how much sugar was in that stuff. So, help us break it down. Sugar is in a cake. Sugar is in a cookie. We got that. But where’re some other places that sugar exists that we might not think about or might not appreciate? 

Dr.  Hancock: You bring up a good point, particularly in terms of fruit, right? So, there is this notion called the glycemic index and the glycemic load — the glycemic index, even for the healthy foods that we eat, like our fruits. There are certain fruits that have a higher glycemic index, meaning they have a higher load of sugar, even if it’s fructose, which is a naturally broken-down sugar. But it’s also in consideration of what? How is that fruit packaged? Is there skin that we eat with that fruit? For example, watermelon, papaya, mango, some of my personal favorites — pineapple as an example. Those are going to be your more high glycemic fruits, meaning when I eat it, in my body processes, it is going to release a higher amount of sugar than, say, for instance, something like an apple or a pear.

And then, you talk about glycemic load. It’s what that food is composed of. It’s not just the sugar itself, but the fiber that comes with it. Fruit juice is one of the biggest culprits. People assume that, Oh, I’m going to just drink this orange juice, this apple juice, this grape juice, and depending on which juice choice you make, it actually may have more sugar than even a soda. So, as an example, there are certain brands — I won’t name brands because I don’t want to get them in trouble — but there are certain cran-hyphen-fruit brand drinks that a 16-ounce bottle will have more sugar than a 12-ounce bottle of soda.

And so, for us collectively, but particularly as parents, the most important thing is to pay attention to the nutrition label. The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than nine teaspoons of sugar per day. Women consume no more than six teaspoons of sugar per day. And based on a child’s age and caloric needs, if they consume no more than three to six. But we know the average American consumes around 24 teaspoons of sugar a day. That’s affecting our heart health. Our mental health. 

Hill: And I just to underscore that point, you know, because I started reading labels, you know, there are sodas that will have 59 grams of sugar, which just that soda alone is more sugar than you supposed to have in a whole day. The healthy fruit drinks, the apple juices, a good one in a six-ounce juice box, a six-ounce juice box might have 13 grams of sugar. That might be enough for you almost for the whole day. And when you start talking about the pastas, you eat the bread, you consume the sauces. I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t eat sugar,’ and they’ll have a big plate of lasagna. I’m like, You know how much sugar is in that sauce? And that roll you’re eating with the sauce. I don’t care if you drink nothing but water, you’re still not healthy.

Well, here’s the other thing: People started finding alternatives to sugar, and they said, ‘I’m going to do aspartame. I’m going to do, you know, these alternatives to sugar because they are healthier.’ And that’s also a problem — that the National Institutes of Health found that 59 percent of Black students drank sugary drinks like soda compared to a third of white students. So, we’ve got two issues here: One, we drink sugary drinks way too much, and then we find an alternative. We think we’re being healthier, but studies show it might not be. 

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Dr.  Hancock: So, last week, we’re all abuzz about this aspartame concern based on a small agency within the World Health Organization. This agency specifically looks at cancer research. And what they said was that there is a possibility that there’s an association between the consumption of aspartame and the risk of certain cancers. One of the things that’s important to understand is what were the studies that they looked at? There were three recent studies, what we call observational studies, where I look at a group of people, I look at what they’re drinking, and then, I make associations based on what they’ve consumed and what health outcomes they have. For all three of these studies, there was a higher risk of liver cancer and pancreatic cancer, but there’s … I put an asterisk next to it because it was the data that they looked at, was artificially sweetened beverages, not specifically aspartame. They identified artificially sweetened beverages as a substitute for aspartame. And so, we really want to think about that when we draw these conclusions. And from what the researchers said, it wasn’t to say that it was potentially cancerous. It was to really put out a call to action to actually do more research, more scientifically prudent research, not just observational studies, but taste controls those who drink sugary drinks, those who do not, those who specifically drink drinks that have aspartame in it. Because you can’t measure aspartame in the body; it’s actually broken down into its basic components by the time we consume it. And these same components can be included with other foods that we may eat or drink, not necessarily linked to aspartame.

And so, there’s definitely room for more discovery, more research in order for us to answer that question. But to your point, we have to be mindful of our consumption based on what they said. Someone would have to exceed nine to 12 cans of artificially sweetened beverage in order to exceed the daily limit. And very few people do that. 

Hill: This is a structural problem. We need access to healthy foods. This is a legislative problem, as you pointed out. We need to regulate what happens so that people can have the context to make healthier choices. But then, also, we have to make healthier choices. And I’m glad you’re breaking this down for us so we have the the tools necessary to make those choices.

Dr. Yolandra Hancock, thank you so much. She’s a pediatrician. She’s a health and wellness expert. She is brilliant. And that’s what Black women do for us on theGrio. They bring the brilliance. 

Learn more about  sugar’s addictive qualities from the clip above, and tune into theGrio with Marc Lamont Hill every weeknight at 7 pm ET on theGrio cable channel.

ThePowerBloc is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!


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