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Study: Consuming artificially sweetened drinks during pregnancy linked to increased infant weight

A newborn baby's feet in their parent's hand.
File photo. Getty Images

WINNIPEG — A new study suggests women who consume artificially sweetened drinks daily while pregnant could see an increase in their baby’s weight.

It found that women who had a daily consumption of artificially sweetened beverages, such as those that use Splenda instead of sugar, not only appeared to affect their infants’ body mass index but also may lead to an increased risk of early childhood obesity.

“We had infants who were twice as likely to be overweight at one year of age compared to (the infants of) women who consumed no artificial sweetener,” said lead author, Meghan Azad, assistant professor in College of Medicine’s department of pediatrics at the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Health Sciences. “This really is the first study to show this. It has never been looked at before.

READ MORE: Sweetener vs sugar: Which ones you should avoid

The study involved more than 3,000 mothers and infants in the national Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) Study. Infants in the CHILD Study are now turning five-years-old.

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“Our study provides the first human evidence that maternal consumption of artificially sweetened beverages during pregnancy is associated with differences in infant body weight,” said Azad. “These artificial sweeteners might be affecting our metabolism.”

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CHILD is a larger $30 million study which involves more than 40 researchers from the Universities of Alberta, B.C., Manitoba, Toronto and McMaster University.

READ MORE: Researchers test artificial sweeteners as cancer treatment

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity rates have doubled since 1970 with nearly one in three children now classified as overweight or obese. Over the same period, the consumption of artificial sweeteners has steadily increased among adults, children, and also pregnant women.

“There is evidence in adults that if you consume these artificial sweeteners routinely over the long term, you may reprogram your metabolism to be more predisposed to weight gain,” said Azad. “Whether it starts in utero hasn’t been studied but it’s something our study suggests could. Some animal research suggests that consuming artificial sweeteners during pregnancy can predispose offspring to develop obesity, but this had never been studied in humans.”

Health Canada is the regulatory body responsible for food additives in the country.

Sugar substitutes that are added to pre-packaged foods are regulated as food additives and according to Health Canada are subject to strict controls under Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations.

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There are a number of sugar substitutes that have been approved for use as food additives in pre-packaged foods in Canada such as:

  • acesulfame-potassium
  • aspartame
  • erythritol
  • neotame
  • sucralose
  • sugar alcohols (polyols) such as sorbitol, isolmalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol and xylitol
  • thaumatin

These products are used in foods such as soft drinks, desserts, breakfast cereals, chewing gum and other confectionery items, such as candy. Aspartame, a low calorie sugar substitute is possibly the most well known of these products. According to Health Canada it has been approved for use in the country since 1981.

On its website it also states that consumption of sugar substitutes during pregnancy does not pose a health risk. However, pregnant women should avoid consuming too many products containing artificial sweeteners, since they may be replacing nutrient-dense, energy-yielding foods needed for a healthy pregnancy.

 

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