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UT Health San Antonio study links aspartame to autism in males

Large plastic bottles of carbonated diet drinks
Anthony Behar/Anthony Behar/Sipa USA via Reute
Cans of carbonated diet drinks

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A new study led by researchers at UT Health San Antonio has found a possible association between diet sodas consumed during pregnancy and a risk of autism in male children.

TPR’s Jerry Clayton spoke with Dr. Sharon Parten Fowler, adjunct assistant professor of medicine at UT Health San Antonio and lead author of the study.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Clayton: Aspartame has been linked to other neurophysiological issues ever since it was introduced. Tell me about some of those problems.

Fowler: Yes, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began receiving complaints in 1983 of different neurological problems, and they included headache, depression, seizures — different [and] very serious conditions that people were having. And so those complaints have continued over the years.

And there have been case studies that have been reported. There have been clinical trials that have been conducted. There have been prospective studies that have found problems, including depression and even questions about whether dementia is increased among people who are using diet beverages daily. So, a wide range of possibilities.

The study found boys diagnosed with autism were more than three times as likely to have been born to mothers who reported consuming at least one or more servings of diet soda a day during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Clayton: Is it too early, do you think, to say that, in the least, expectant mothers should probably avoid aspartame?

Fowler: I'm highly, highly convinced myself that women who are planning to become pregnant or who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid these products. It's very convenient to think of having sweet taste without calories, but it's not sweet taste without consequences.

I would say there are a number of studies in animals that have shown increased glucose intolerance over the past two decades. Animal studies have been reporting problems among both adult animals and also offspring that were exposed because their mothers were consuming aspartame.

In each of those cases, there could be increased weight gain and especially those that the ability of the animal to control glucose levels. So glucose intolerance was increased in the animals that had been exposed in the womb during the pregnancy.

But in 2010, studies started reporting problems in human offspring that were exposed daily or more often to diet sodas or other diet beverages. So in 2010, 2015, '16, '17, '20, '23, before our study in '23. There were multiple studies that came out. The first thing that was reported was increased risk of premature birth.

There was a one third increase in overall premature birth and a two thirds increase in early pregnancy, premature birth among women who were using diet sodas and beverages daily during their pregnancy. So that's a big warning flag, I would say.

Then some results of other studies of children who were born, who were large for gestational age when they were born, and they at one year and then subsequently at five years, eight years, 12 years, they were twice as likely to be overweight or obese as children who had not been exposed during pregnancy to artificially sweetened drinks.

So, these are big warning signs that have been out there already for prematurity and cardiometabolic problems.

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 international journal Nutrients last month.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.