Study finds diet soda and autism link


Though small, researchers and health experts say the study deserves follow-up

While scientists have yet to conclusively link autism to any external factor, a new study by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) has raised an intriguing possibility.

The study found an association between autism diagnosis in boys and daily consumption of either diet soda or a comparable amount of aspartame by their mothers during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Admittedly, it’s a small study. It included mothers of 235 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and 121 offspring with typical neurological development. 

In the case-control study, boys who had been diagnosed with autism were more than three times as likely as neurotypically developing boys to have been born to mothers who reported consuming one or more servings per day of diet soda, or comparable amounts of the leading artificial sweetener aspartame, during pregnancy or breastfeeding. 

No statistically significant association was found in female children. The researchers say this is an area that deserves further exploration.

‘Findings raise new questions’

“These associations do not prove causality, but taken in concert with reports from earlier studies of increased prematurity and cardiometabolic health impacts among infants and children exposed daily to diet beverages and/or aspartame during pregnancy, our findings raise new questions about potential neurological impacts that need to be addressed,” said Raymond Palmer, senior author of the paper, and professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UT Health San Antonio.

The study, “Daily Early-Life Exposures to Diet Soda and Aspartame Are Associated with Autism in Males: A Case-Control Study,” was published in the scientific journal; Nutrients. Researchers at the School of Public Health campuses in San Antonio and Houston, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the School of Public Health at San Diego State University also participated in the study.

Dr. Danielle Kelvas, physician advisor at R's KOSO, says research has shown that consuming diet soda leads to an imbalance in the gut microbiome, altering the number and variety of microbes.

“There definitely needs to be more research before we as clinicians can say definitively that aspartame and/or diet soda causes autism, but this really is an alarming, illuminating study,” Kelvas told ConsumerAffairs. “Extensive research has already linked aspartame to a number of harmful things, cancer and migraines being a few examples. Personally, I don't touch artificial sweeteners with a 10-foot pole.”

Earlier this year the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) labeled the sweetener as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said the findings do not mean that aspartame is actually linked to cancer.

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