Eating too much ultra-processed food during pregnancy affects children’s language skills and development

The children of mothers who have a low socio-economic status, primary school education and a non-Mediterranean diet had poorer results in verbal skills tests.

Excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods such as sugary drinks or crisps during pregnancy affects children’s language and verbal skills. This has been confirmed by pioneering research in this field which, for the first time, highlights this key aspect in child development and learning and further highlights the role of diet in people’s health. The research was carried out by a team from the Pere Virgili Institute for Health Research (IISPV) in collaboration with the URV, the ISGlobal centre and the Biomedical Research Network Centre. The results have been published in the scientific journal Clinical Nutrition.

The research consisted of a four-year study of 1,800 mothers and their children, who were followed from birth to the age of five, when they develop language skills such as verbal reasoning and agility, and numerical memory. To assess the development of the children studied, the international McCarthy scale was used. One of the most important categories of mental aptitude in the tests is language skills which, together with non-verbal or visual and perceptual skills (thanks to which children learn to handle materials, to coordinate the body and to develop non-verbal reasoning) determine the degree of general cognition that the infant attains. This is why the effect that diet has on infants in this stage of their development is key

“Some examples of language skills are learning to relate similar verbal concepts,” explains Jordi Júlvez, a researcher at the IISPV. “We have also studied verbal fluency, which can be expressed, for example, by the child’s ability to name as many fruits as possible in 20 seconds,” he adds.

To assess whether the mothers had a high intake of ultra-processed foods, they were asked to respond to a food consumption questionnaire. They were then divided into three groups: one of mothers with a low intake of ultra-processed foods, another with a medium intake and the third with a high intake. The results showed that the children of mothers in the high-intake group had low scores on the verbal skills section of the McCarthy test. The research team observed that “the profile of the mothers in this group was that of a woman with primary education, from a low social class and who does not regularly follow a Mediterranean diet. Taking these aspects into account gives us a more global view of this reality”, explains Júlia Puig, nutritionist and public health professional at IsGlobal.

Bibliographic references: Puig-Vallverdú J, Romaguera D, Fernández-Barrés S, Gignac F, Ibarluzea J, Santa-Maria L, Llop S, Gonzalez S, Vioque J, Riaño-Galán I, Fernández-Tardón G, Pinar A, Turner MC, Arija V, Salas-Savadó J, Vrijheid M, Julvez J. The association between maternal ultra-processed food consumption during pregnancy and child neuropsychological development: A population-based birth cohort study. Clin Nutr. 2022 Oct;41(10):2275-2283. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2022.08.005. Epub 2022 Aug 19. PMID: 36087519.

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