Pregnant moms and their offspring should limit added sugars in their diets to protect childhood cognition

Consuming more fruits and less sugar and avoiding diet soda during pregnancy could have a beneficial effect on child cognitive functioning, according to a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine


Ann Arbor, April 19, 2018

A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has determined that poorer childhood cognition occurred, particularly in memory and learning, when pregnant women or their offspring consumed greater quantities of sugar. Substituting diet soda for sugar-sweetened versions during pregnancy also appeared to have negative effects. However, children’s fruit consumption had beneficial effects and was associated with higher cognitive scores.

Research is increasingly focusing on the adverse impact of sugar consumption on health, especially high-fructose corn syrup. Sugar consumption among Americans is above recommended limits, and the Current Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize the importance of reducing calories from added sugars. They are incorporated into foods and beverages during preparation or processing, with sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) being the greatest contributor in Americans’ diets. Evidence is also emerging that sugar consumption may negatively impact children’s cognitive development.

“The aim of our study was to examine associations of pregnancy and offspring sugar consumption (sucrose, fructose) with child cognition,” explained lead investigator Juliana F.W. Cohen, ScD, School of Health Sciences, Merrimack College, North Andover, MA, and Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA. “Additionally, we examined associations of maternal and child consumption of SSBs, other beverages including diet soda and juice, and fruit with child cognition.”

Investigators collected dietary assessment data for more than 1,000 pregnant women from 1999 to 2002 who participated in Project Viva. Their offspring’s diets were assessed in early childhood. Child cognition was assessed in early and mid-childhood (at approximately age 3 and 7, respectively).

The results of this study indicate that consuming more fruits and less sugar, as well as avoiding diet soda during pregnancy, may have a meaningful impact on child cognitive functioning. Key findings include:

  • Maternal sugar consumption, especially from SSBs, was associated with poorer childhood cognition including non-verbal abilities to solve novel problems and poorer verbal memory.
  • Maternal SSB consumption was associated with poorer global intelligence associated with both verbal knowledge and non-verbal skills.
  • Maternal diet soda consumption was associated with poorer fine motor, visual spatial, and visual motor abilities in early childhood and poorer verbal abilities in mid-childhood.
  • Childhood SSB consumption was associated with poorer verbal intelligence at mid-childhood.
  • Child consumption of both fructose and fruit in early childhood was associated with higher cognitive scores in several areas and greater receptive vocabulary.
  • Fruit was additionally associated with greater visual motor abilities in early childhood and verbal intelligence in mid-childhood.
  • Fruit juice intake was not associated with improved cognition, which may suggest the benefits are from other aspects of fruits, such as phytochemicals, and not fructose itself.

“This study provides evidence that there should be no further delays in implementing the new Nutrition Facts label. The new label will provide information on added sugars so that pregnant women and parents can make informed choices regarding added sugars and more easily limit their intake. This study also provides additional support for keeping federal nutrition programs strong, such as Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the National School Lunch Program, because their promotion of diets higher in fruits and lower in added sugars may be associated with improved childhood cognition,” commented Dr. Cohen.

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Notes for editors
The article is “Associations of Prenatal and Child Sugar Intake With Child Cognition,” by Juliana F.W. Cohen, ScD, Sheryl L. Rifas-Shiman, MPH, Jessica Young, PhD, and Emily Oken, MPH, MD (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2018.02.020). It appears in advance of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, volume 54, issue 6 (June 2018), published by Elsevier.

Full text of this article is openly available here or to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Jillian B. Morgan at +1 734 936 1590 or ajpmmedia@elsevier.com. Journalists who wish to interview the authors should contact Heather Notaro, Communications Office, Merrimack College, at +1 978 837 5770 or notarohl@merrimack.edu.

This research was supported by grants from the U.S. NIH (R01 HD34568, K24 HD069408, R01 ES016314).

About the American Journal of Preventive Medicine
The American Journal of Preventive Medicine is the official journal of the American College of Preventive Medicine and the Association for Prevention Teaching and Research. It publishes articles in the areas of prevention research, teaching, practice and policy. Original research is published on interventions aimed at the prevention of chronic and acute disease and the promotion of individual and community health. The journal features papers that address the primary and secondary prevention of important clinical, behavioral and public health issues such as injury and violence, infectious disease, women's health, smoking, sedentary behaviors and physical activity, nutrition, diabetes, obesity, and alcohol and drug abuse. Papers also address educational initiatives aimed at improving the ability of health professionals to provide effective clinical prevention and public health services. The journal also publishes official policy statements from the two co-sponsoring organizations, health services research pertinent to prevention and public health, review articles, media reviews, and editorials. www.ajpmonline.org

About Elsevier
Elsevier is a global information analytics business that helps institutions and professionals advance healthcare, open science and improve performance for the benefit of humanity. Elsevier provides digital solutions and tools in the areas of strategic research management, R&D performance, clinical decision support and professional education, including ScienceDirect, Scopus, SciVal, ClinicalKey and Sherpath. Elsevier publishes over 2,500 digitized journals, including The Lancet and Cell, more than 38,000 e-book titles and many iconic reference works, including Gray's Anatomy. Elsevier is part of RELX Group, a global provider of information and analytics for professionals and business customers across industries. www.elsevier.com

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