Doctors have responded to a controversial study that linked diet sodas to autism.
Research conducted by the University of Texas (UT) found that children diagnosed with autism were three times more likely to have mothers who drank diet soda daily during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
They theorized that aspartame, the popular sugar substitute found in Diet Coke, may release toxins that cause oxidative stress in cells and tissues, a process linked to autism.
But Dr Deirdre Tobias, a nutritionist at Harvard University who was not involved in the research, told DailyMail.com it was “shocking that the authors felt confident enough in this design to draw those conclusions.”
Dr Rachel Moseley, senior academic in psychology at Bournemouth University in the UK, told DailyMail.com: ‘It would be very premature and irresponsible to suggest a link between aspartame and autism based on this study. As every scientist knows, the correlation between two things does not mean that one causes the other.’
Research from the University of Texas (UT) found that children diagnosed with autism were more than three times more likely than non-autistic children to have mothers who drank diet soda daily during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
The above products, as well as Weight Watchers yogurts and Conagra Mrs Butterworth’s syrups, contain aspartame.
Dr. Tobias said the study was “extremely flawed” because the data was collected retrospectively and was based on mothers’ memory of how much aspartame they consumed.
Dr. Moseley added that the sample size is small and was recruited from a panel of parents of an autistic child.
“Because autism has a large genetic component, having an autistic child is already associated with an increased risk of having another autistic child,” he said.
“Furthermore, the authors did not rigorously confirm whether one or both parents were autistic.”
In the study, the diets of mothers of 235 children with autism spectrum disorder were compared with a control group of mothers of 121 children who did not have autism.
Mothers completed questionnaires that asked: ‘While you were pregnant or breastfeeding your child, how often did you drink diet drinks that contained artificial sweeteners?’
Diet Coke, Diet Dr Pepper, Diet Sprite, Crystal Light, Sugar-Free Kool-Aid, and Slim-Fast were suggested as suggestions.
Each mother was also asked, “While you were pregnant or breastfeeding your child, how many packets of low-calorie sweeteners (such as Sweet ‘N Low, Equal, or Splenda) did you use in your coffee, tea, or other foods and beverages?”
Intake of the three main sweeteners was recorded: Equal/Nutrasweet (blue), Splenda (yellow) and Sweet’N Low (pink).
The researchers found that men diagnosed with autism disorder were 3.1 to 3.5 times more likely to have mothers who reported aspartame intake equivalent to one or more diet sodas per day during pregnancy or breastfeeding, compared with the control men.
The association was greatest among men with non-regressive autism, where the condition is evident before 18 months, also known as early onset.
The study did not find a statistically significant trend in autistic girls.
Conditions such as obesity and diabetes in mothers are associated with an increased risk of autism in children and may also influence the decision to use diet products.
The researchers did not collect data on these risk factors, nor on smoking, drinking, birth weight, prematurity, or parental age. They had data on household income, educational level, and ethnicity, which they adjusted for in the results.
Dr. Tobias added that the three artificial sweeteners they examined are “completely different compounds, metabolized very differently in humans and have been extensively evaluated for safety.”
‘Thus, the fact that the aspartame signal was essentially the same as that of other chemicals further indicates bias in this study, perhaps due to errors in the mothers’ memories or other factors related to the women who They chose diet sodas.
“It is extremely unlikely that any association they are seeing has anything to do with the chemical aspartame itself.”
The study was published in the journal Nutrients.
During pregnancy, aspartame can cross the placenta and accumulate in fetal tissue.
The substance can also pass into breast milk, but other studies have suggested that the mother’s body breaks it down quickly.
Autism affects one in 36 children, meaning more than 90,000 children are born with this developmental disorder in the United States annually.
It is characterized by communication and social interaction problems, difficulty expressing oneself, and repetitive behaviors and interests.
Autism is a lightning rod problem and often appears in anti-vaccine messages.
In a recent survey, a quarter of American adults said they believed the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism, a widely studied and debunked claim that emerged in the 1990s.
Anti-vaxxers have been spreading claims that the shots can cause autism for almost 25 years, but the link has been repeatedly disproven.
Disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield made this claim in a now-retracted 1998 Lancet study.
Dr. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, publicly described the research as “fundamentally flawed” in 2004, nine years after it was published.
Dr. Horton alleged that Andrew Wakefield, the gastroenterologist behind the article, received money from a group that filed lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers.
The prestigious medical journal eventually retracted the article in 2010.
Just three months after his article was withdrawn, the General Medical Council banned Wakefield from practicing medicine in Britain.
In 2011, the British Medical Journal carried out a damning investigation into the findings of Wakefield’s original study.
Their research found that only two of the 12 children included developed symptoms of autism after being vaccinated, as opposed to the eight Wakefield claimed.
Since then, studies involving millions of children have failed to find a link between the MMR vaccine and the neurodevelopmental disorder.