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Study warns of hidden danger to unborn infants

11 February 2011

Study warns of hidden danger to unborn infants

Research by a team at The University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute has demonstrated a link between the consumption of sugar-rich diets during pregnancy and compromised fetal development.

The study by senior research fellows Drs Mark Vickers and Deborah Sloboda and their Masters students was published in the latest on-line issue of the high ranking journal Endocrinology, see

“Obesity is now the leading cause of pregnancy complications,” says Dr Sloboda. “While the effects of maternal high-fat diets on offspring have been well investigated, we know very little about the effects of consuming high levels of sugars such as fructose.”

Fructose has been blamed as a major contributor to the obesity epidemic. Fructose occurs in honey, fruit and some vegetables, but it is widely used as a sweetener in processed foods and soft drinks, resulting in a massive increase in its consumption that is raising concern.

In the study, rats were fed diets high in fructose during pregnancy and lactation. This was associated with changed levels of key metabolic hormones in both fetuses and new born offspring. In addition, the effects were sex-specific: only female fetuses were affected but after birth both sexes showed equal (adverse) effects. The investigators also observed that the placentas supplying nutrients to the female fetuses were significantly smaller than those of the males.

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Sloboda says that although this study was conducted in rats, there may be implications for human offspring. “Intriguingly, the mothers on the fructose enriched diets did not gain any more weight or fat mass than animals on a regular diet, but they had higher concentrations of the hormone insulin in their blood – a key problem in type 2 diabetes.

“Recently, there has been a marked increase in consumption of foods and beverages sweetened with fructose, particularly amongst women of reproductive age. The fact that we saw no obvious weight gain implies that women may be unaware that their diet could be compromising the development of their fetus,” she adds.

The group has preliminary data which suggests that the fructose may affect the functioning of the placenta and that this in turn alters liver function in fetuses and newborn. Further studies are under way investigating the impact of early life exposure to fructose on long term health and metabolism.


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