Hyped-Up Health Claims Relevant to Pregnancy, Nursing, and Early Childhood

Health Claims

We are living in the Information Age. A plethora of analyses, reports, and health study results are available at your fingertips, or at the request of a voice command. But sadly, a lot of what you can find on the Internet is incomplete, distorted, or plain wrong. There are many reasons for this, but a big one is the health reporting process, which often follows a formula that goes like this: Some research team at an institution or company runs a small study, involving a small number of volunteers or laboratory animals, leading to a particular claim along the lines of “X causes”, or “Y prevents.” A press release is then issued, as the study lines up for publication in a scientific journal. The purpose of the press release is publicity, so the finding is made out to be quite important, even if the study was small, if its conclusions may have been inaccurate due to bias and, importantly, even if it’s contradicted by the bulk of published research. Often, this leads to stories in the media presenting the small study that doesn’t reveal much as if it represented a sea change in health. Here, we’ll look at a few popular health issues that are relevant to pregnancy, but that may be more hype than science.

Artificial Sweeteners or Sugar: Which is Worse?

High sugar intake is definitely bad for you, pregnant or not. The science is really clear on this. As for artificial sweeteners that are put into products to replace sugar, common ones include saccharine, aspartame, acesulfame, sucralose, and Rebaudioside A. There also is a category known as sugar alcohols, which include Sorbitol, Xylitol, Isomalt, Mannitol, and Hydrogenated Starch. All have been certified by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as safe during pregnancy, if consumed in moderation. That’s meaningful, because for decades there have been concerns about one artificial sweetener or another causing cancer. With saccharine, for instance, studies in the mid 20th century seemed to show a causative effect of bladder cancer in rats. This frightened consumers for a while, but the studies didn’t translate to humans, nor even to most rats. It turned out that only a certain strain of rats developed cancer, and only if fed rather large amounts of this early sweetener. With aspartame, there was a cancer scare that climaxed in the 1990s, but that did not pan out either. Today, there is still concern that artificial sweeteners can provoke obesity and diabetes, but then so can sugar. And one can of soda contains a very large amount of sugar.  In comparison, one diet soda per day is probably something we can call a modest amount of artificial sweetener.

The Mozart Effect

The recent miniseries Genius, on the National Geographic channel, made a point of how Albert Einstein played the violin and was pretty good. There is no question that hearing classical music can be soothing and help you to concentrate. It also can calm a child. But then there are those very popular videos, named for Einstein, that feature famous pieces by Mozart, and also Bach, and other classical composers. The music is slowed down while things happen on the screen with toys. They are popular because of an idea that hearing such music can boost the IQ of a young child. It’s known as the ‘Mozart Effect’ but, unfortunately, when all the various relevant studies were analyzed together, there was nothing there. Sure, you may find that it keeps the baby busy, and it certainly does no harm, but as for the Mozart Effect, it is not real, so don’t expect that a set of DVDs will make your child into an Einstein.

Coffee and Spontaneous Abortions

You will hear, from time to time, that you should watch those caffeinated beverages during the early weeks of pregnancy because caffeine has been shown to increase the risk of spontaneous abortion –also known as early pregnancy loss, or miscarriage. But, as with the artificial sweeteners, the devil is in the dose. It’s true that there have been some studies that found that caffeine can increase the risk of early losing a pregnancy. But, the increase in risk is fairly small, and it occurs only with high doses of caffeine. This means something like 5-6 cups of high quality brewed coffee per day for many days in a row. If you are somebody who consumes such high levels of caffeine, you may want to consider cutting back, but otherwise don’t sweat it. Having even 3-4 cups of coffee per day is probably well within the safety zone. Of course, those big sugary coffee drinks are another matter, not because of the caffeine, but the sugar.

Are You Harming Your Child if You Don’t Breastfeed?

The simple answer is no. There are many reasons why a new mother would opt for infant formula instead of breastfeeding (read more about it here). One major point is that breast-milk contains immunoglobulins, antibodies which have been hypothesized to protect newborns against infections. There are other possible reasons why breastfeeding could be better than formula. However, when you look at the entire collection of scientific studies on this matter, there is no positive outcome in breastfed infants that is both dramatic and separable from various social and economic factors.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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