Pregnant moms could be harming their children’s early cognitive development by consuming too much sugar—particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs)—according to new research. A study headed by researchers at Merrimack College, North Andover, found that the amount of sugar, sugary drinks, and also diet soda consumed by mothers during pregnancy was linked with poorer early and mid-childhood cognitive scores in their offspring, particularly in areas such as learning and memory. The amount of SSBs consumed by young children also adversely affected some cognitive scores, while increased amounts of fruit (although not fruit juice) eaten by young children improved cognitive scores.

“This study provides evidence that there should be no further delays in implementing the new Nutrition Facts label,” comments research lead Juliana F.W. Cohen, Sc.D., at the School of Health Sciences, Merrimack College, in North Andover, MA, and department of nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “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.”

Results from the prospective study by the Merrimack College team and colleagues at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute are published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, in a paper entitled “Associations of Prenatal and Child Sugar Intake With Child Cognition.”

There is a considerable research focus on the adverse effects of sugar consumption on health, and current U.S. dietary guidelines emphasize the importance of taking in fewer calories from added sugars. SSBs are the primary contributors to added sugars in a typical American diet, the researchers note.  Consumption of added sugars piles on an average 300 extra calories a day, which is far more than is advised by both the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association.

Evidence also suggests that sugar consumption may adversely affect children’s cognitive development. However, the Merrimack College team says it is unaware of any human studies evaluating the association between prenatal sugar consumption and cognitive development in offspring. Results from existing studies on children’s sugar consumption and cognition have also been inconsistent.

Dr. Cohen’s team evaluated data from 1234 mother–child pairs enrolled during 1999–2002 in Project Viva, a prospective observational cohort study designed to study prenatal factors, pregnancy outcomes, and child health. The aim was to evaluate any association between prenatal sugar consumption by mothers and sugar consumption by offspring on child cognition in early and mid-childhood (to about age 8 years). The study was also designed to look at any association between child cognition and maternal and child consumption of SSBs, diet soda and juices that have no added sugar, and children’s consumption of fruit.

The results indicated that maternal sugar consumption, especially from SSBs, was linked with poorer childhood cognition, including nonverbal problem solving and poorer verbal memory. Maternal SSB consumption, specifically, was associated with poorer global intelligence associated with both verbal knowledge and nonverbal skills, while 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. “While women should consider limiting added sugar consumption during pregnancy, diet soda may not be an ideal alternative,” the authors write.

Childhood consumption of SSBs was also associated with poorer verbal intelligence at mid-childhood. In contrast, increased early childhood consumption of fruit and fructose (primarily because of fruit consumption) was associated with higher cognitive scores in a range of areas and better receptive vocabulary. Fruit consumption by young children was also linked with better visual motor abilities in early childhood and greater verbal intelligence in mid-childhood.

Fruit juice, on the other hand, didn't’ improve cognition, indicating that the benefits of eating fruit are found in nonfructose compounds, such as phytochemicals.

“This study also provides additional support for keeping federal nutrition programs strong, such as the 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,” Dr. Cohen notes.

“Interventions and policies that promote healthier diets may prevent adverse effects on childhood cognition,” the researchers conclude.