Pregnant or breastfeeding women who consume diet soda or other foods and drinks containing aspartame could experience higher rates of autism diagnoses in their sons, a new study has revealed.
Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) found that among boys who had been diagnosed with autism, their mothers were three times as likely to report drinking at least one diet soda — or consuming an equivalent amount of five tabletop packets of aspartame — per day.
“Our study does not prove causality — it does not prove that maternal intake of diet sodas, and aspartame specifically, during pregnancy or nursing increases a child’s risk of autism — but it does raise a major warning flag,” said lead author Sharon Parten Fowler, PhD, adjunct assistant professor of medicine at UT Health San Antonio, in an interview with Fox News Digital.
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In the study, the researchers analyzed reported aspartame consumption of the mothers of 235 children who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Then they compared those results to a control group of 121 children who had “typical neurological development.”
Compared to the neurologically typical children, the male offspring with autism were more than three times as likely to have been exposed to aspartame-sweetened products on a daily basis while they were in utero or were breastfed.
“We saw these associations for autism in boys but not for autism in girls,” Fowler noted.
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“We also saw these associations for boys with autism disorder, but not for all boys with any autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — an umbrella category that includes less severely life-changing conditions, such as Asperger syndrome, as well as the potentially more severe conditions categorized as autism disorder.”
The odds of a boy with autism having been exposed daily to these diet products in early life increased with the severity of the condition, an earlier onset of the condition and the mother’s use of aspartame-sweetened diet sodas/beverages and packets specifically, Fowler noted.
Limitations of the study
The study did have some limitations, according to its authors.
The mothers’ dietary data were collected retrospectively, several years after their pregnancy and nursing experiences; it would be ideal to measure their intake before and during the actual pregnancy and nursing periods, Fowler noted.
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“Also, most of the autism cases in this study (87%) were male,” she added.
“It would be important to study these same relationships in a much larger study population, prospectively, with larger numbers of female as well as male offspring, and with more information collected about additional risk factors of the mothers that might have affected the children’s risk of developing autism.”
This is not the first paper to raise a warning flag about women’s consumption of these products during pregnancy, said Fowler.
“Since 2010, a number of reports have been published about increased health risks among the offspring of women who drank diet sodas and other diet beverages during pregnancy,” she said.
These health risks have included increased risk of prematurity, as well as increased risk of overweight or obesity, from infancy on through later childhood.
Fowler urges women who are pregnant, nursing or considering becoming pregnant to avoid aspartame-containing drinks as a precautionary measure.
“A recent study has shown that leading sweeteners used in diet beverages have been found within the amniotic fluid surrounding the child in the womb, and within blood in the child’s umbilical cord,” said Fowler.
“This proves that when a woman drinks these diet sweeteners, they make it into the womb itself, and the fluid in which the child is floating. They may even become more concentrated there than in the mother’s blood.”
Currently, one in 23 eight-year-old boys in the U.S. have been diagnosed with ASD, Fowler said — “a historically unprecedented number to be affected.”
“Meanwhile, between 24% and 30% of pregnant women have reported using diet sodas and/or diet sweeteners,” she went on.
“But when the mother drinks these products, she’s drinking for two.”
The best drink of choice for pregnant or nursing women is water.
In light of the results of human and animal studies, Fowler urges women who are pregnant, nursing or considering becoming pregnant to avoid aspartame-containing drinks as a precautionary measure.
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“Even though we don’t have the final answers yet, women can act now on available data to protect their unborn children,” she said.
The best drink of choice for pregnant or nursing women is water, Fowler said.
“I would urge them to drink more water — either still or sparkling — and to add natural flavorings, such as splashes of fruit juice, slices of fresh lemon or orange, or crushed mint leaves.”
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Dr. Robert Melillo, a brain and autism researcher who also runs a clinical practice in Rockville Centre, New York, was not involved in the study but said that its findings align with his own research.
“Autism rates have skyrocketed in the last 30 years, going from 1 in 10,000 to now 1 in 36, with boys being diagnosed at four times the rate of girls,” he told Fox News Digital. “Other studies have shown that this increase is not just because of improved recognition and diagnosis — it points to environmental factors as the main driver.”
Melillo, the author of “Disconnected Kids: The Groundbreaking Brain Balance Program for Children with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Neurological Disorders,” pointed out that kids with autism may have an imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain — the neurotransmitters glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) — which has shown to be triggered by aspartame.
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“This study confirms what was previously suspected — that aspartame may elevate the risk if consumed during pregnancy,” he said.
“The good news is that avoiding diet sodas and (other sources of) aspartame during pregnancy might lower the risk of having a child with autism or some other developmental disability,” the doctor went on.
“This should start at least six months before getting pregnant.”
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