Michael I. Goran and Emily Ventura cite recent pediatric research to make the argument that “secondhand sugar” exposure prenatally and during lactation is dangerous to children’s health:

If you saw a pregnant woman smoking, you would undoubtedly be concerned about the health of her child. But if you saw a pregnant woman drinking a soda, would you bat an eye? The comparison may seem extreme, but the parallels between tobacco and sugar run deeper than you might imagine.

There is no debate that secondhand smoke is harmful. Now scientists are discovering similar risks of “secondhand sugars” in infants and children, specifically that our high-sugar environment can harm children’s development and their long-term health.

We are finding that sugar exposure can begin to affect a child even before birth. The sugars that a mother consumes while pregnant or nursing can be passed to her baby, disrupt healthy growth and development, and pose risk for obesity.


Is sugar toxic? Evidence is growing that it is, especially when exposures occur during very sensitive periods over a lifespan. The past few years have seen numerous studies finding risks to our health from environmental exposures occurring during the most rapid periods of  growth and development — in the fetus, young infants, and teenagers. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of poorly-studied chemicals which have made their way into the environment and into our mouths and lungs have been implicated in causing harm in all age groups. Chemicals that act as endocrine disrupters, mimicking biologic hormones in amounts greater than normally produced by the human body, have been shown to cause great harm — adverse pregnancy outcomes, birth defects, immune disorders, cancer, and more — resulting from exposure. In the fetus, organs are formed early in the first trimester and then migrate to their mature anatomic positions during the rest of pregnancy. Early infancy sees very rapid growth and development, with infants typically doubling their birth weights in the first 3-4 months of life. Growth during the rest of infancy and childhood proceeds at a high-but-steady rate until the next (and last) growth spurt in adolescence, a time when hormones rage and the body, finally, fully matures. Children and teenagers are more likely to be exposed to body-altering chemicals for a variety of reasons and with different effects than adults, which we have discovered previously on The PediaBlog:

Children are not like adults:

— Per unit body weight, they breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food than adults.

— They spend more time playing outdoors.

— Their play tends to be closer to where industrial fallout occurs — in grass, dirt, and bodies of water — and, thus, they are often exposed to higher doses of pollutants.

— Unlike full-size adults, children (including fetuses and infants) undergo continuous anatomic and physiologic growth and development. Normal processes of growth and development such as cell division, tissue differentiation, and organ migration can be disturbed and interrupted, resulting in birth defects, neurocognitive deficits, and various medical problems that are unique to — or more severe in — children. Asthma is just one of these.

— Children have a longer “shelf-life” than adults. That is, there is more time for a child to present with clinical manifestations resulting from toxic exposures than an adult exposed at the same time. Children have longer to live than their adults and grandparents; it’s only fair that we acknowledge that.


Fetuses and babies who feed from the breast may be exposed to harmful chemicals inadvertently. Goran and Ventura place sugar in a similar risk category:

Involuntary exposure to sugar can also continue beyond pregnancy and lactation. Infant formula and baby foods often contain added sugar, and many children are exposed to sugary beverages from infancy. One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which followed the diets of 1,189 infants over six years, showed that those who were given sugary beverages just three times per week at 10 to 12 months of age had twice the risk of becoming obese.

Children are too young to make informed eating choices and are exposed to aggressive marketing campaigns for sweet foods. Once school-age, many children — especially those from low-income families — rely on public school meal programs, which are often high in sugar. A child can easily grow up in an environment loaded with sugar, creating a foundation for obesity and the associated risk of disease.


Fructose in particular, which is found in sugar-sweetened beverages and all kinds of processed foods, is of great concern to researchers. Animal studies show that higher consumption of fructose during adolescence causes cognitive impairments and brain inflammation. Other investigators are concerned about firsthand and secondhand sugar consumption in the pediatric population. We’ll have more on that tomorrow.


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