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Does A Vegetarian Diet Have Health Implications For Baby Boys?

11 July 2002

The Children of the 90s child health project would like to issue this information in response to interest shown following an article which appeared in this week’s Sunday Express and Monday’s Western Daily Press newspaper.

The Children of the 90s child health project would like to issue this information in response to interest shown following an article which appeared in this week’s Sunday Express and Monday’s Western Daily Press newspaper.

The articles referred to research from the study and suggest that ‘vegetarian mothers were more likely to produce boys suffering from hypospadias, a minor deformity of the penis.’

The Western Daily Press article, specifically, referred to ‘new research revealed yesterday’. In fact, the study in question was carried out over two years ago and the findings were revealed then on the BBC TV programme, Close Up West and received substantial coverage from the media at that time.

Study Director, Professor Jean Golding, would also like to point out that she disputes the quote attributed to her in both newspaper articles – namely, that the research results were “potentially disastrous for the human race.”

When asked this week if she felt a vegetarian diet during pregnancy was detrimental to the developing fetus, Professor Golding replied, “I would suggest strongly that no action is taken until our findings have been confirmed in other studies. Meanwhile I believe that it is important that mothers ensure that there is variety in their diet whether they are vegetarian or not.”

Hopefully this information will clarify any points raised by this week’s newspaper articles. A response also follows from Kate Northstone, co-author of the research, together with the original press release from February 1999.

Written by Kate Northstone in response to articles in the Sunday Express (07/07/02) and Western Daily Press (08/07/02)

Following an article appearing in yesterday’s Sunday Express which was followed up in the Western Daily Press today, we wish to state explicitly that the research reported was not new, contrary to what was reported. The finding, that women who were vegetarian during pregnancy were more likely to give birth to boys with hypospadias (a malformation of the penis where the urethral opening is on the underside of the penis rather than at the tip) was first brought to the attention of the media in February 1999, when a programme was aired on BBC West. The study was then published in the British Journal of Urology in 2000. There was substantial media follow up at both time points.

We feel that the articles described above are both misleading and alarmist. We wish to emphasise that Children of the 90s investigated only one malformation – hypospadias, as opposed to ‘deformities’ or ‘serious defects’ as stated by the Sunday Express, we find these terms offensive. While obviously distressing for the families involved, hypospadias rarely has any deleterious long-term effects and is almost always corrected with surgery.

We wish to point out that Professor Golding has been quoted out of context in both articles, the indications our study have shown are not ‘potentially disastrous to the human race’. We were careful to stress throughout the initial media interest that we did not advocate that any pregnant woman change their chosen lifestyle if they were vegetarian, merely that being vegetarian may be a risk factor for this malformation. The condition is not exclusive to the children of vegetarian mothers, it also occurs in meat eaters. We also emphasised that we could not be sure exactly what facet of the diet could be held responsible. Consumption of soya has increased over recent years, in the wake of BSE and other meat-related health scares.

There are several plausible explanations as to the association we found; including possible exposure to pesticides and phytoestrogens (soya is the richest source in our food chain), both of which are known to act as hormone mimickers, however, we were not able to determine any direct causal factors from our research, as such we found the recent newspaper articles to be unnecessarily sensationalist and we again advise caution in interpreting these results. It is very important that further research is carried out to confirm or refute our findings. Further studies are currently underway on different populations directly examining the hypothesis that we have generated and we hope that many questions raised by our research may be answered. We will then be in a much better position to completely allay people’s fears or provide appropriate recommendations as appropriate.

We would also like to point out that the study referred to in the Express article regarding infant feeding with soya milk possible having a damaging effect on sexual development was actually an animal study and as such we feel it inappropriate to be discussed alongside our own research.

Original Children Of The 90s’ Press Release Follows Below: -

Vegetarian mothers seem more likely to have a baby born with a genital defect than meat-eating mothers – (first issued to the Press in February 1999).

University researchers in an investigation of more than 7,900 mothers found that vegetarians were nearly five times more likely to give birth to a boy with a malformed penis – a condition known as hypospadias.

Now the team at Children of the 90s child health project, say that more research is needed to support their finding or to show that it is a “rogue result”.

They stress that although only 51 boys were found with the abnormality the numbers were statistically significant.

Project leader Professor Jean Golding says: “We know that vegetables are good for all sorts of reasons and we are certainly not advocating that people stop eating vegetables. We think, however, that such studies may help us find answers to this distressing condition”.

She explains that the majority of mothers of the affected boys were meat-eaters. Proportionately, however, vegetarian mothers were nearly five times more at risk of producing a boy with the condition.

Professor Golding adds: “There is no reason whatever for saying that this is anything to do with not eating meat. However it appears that vegetarian mothers are more at risk of having a child with this genital abnormality”.

The team hit on the vegetarian clue after checking the mothers’ diet in pregnancy when their initial investigation showed the increase in hypospadias.

They now think that crop pesticides or naturally occurring chemicals called phytoestrogens may be involved. They are found in many food stuffs favoured by vegetarians, particularly soya.

Professor Golding maintains: “We will have to investigate further to see whether this is a rogue result. We need to be sure and we need more studies to confirm whether this is a true figure. If it is, we will need to try to find the mechanisms involved”.

The study involved data from the Institute’s Children of the 90s study. One of the largest of its type in the world, it has been following 14,000 mothers in the former county of Avon since the time they were pregnant. The study investigates and monitors the child’s health and lifestyle.

The data involving the mothers of affected boys was collected during 1990-1992 when genetically modified food was not an issue.


*** Hypospadias is a condition where the opening of the penis is on the underside rather than the tip. It is usually corrected by surgery.

“Maternal vegetarian diet in pregnancy linked to hypospadias” K North, J Golding and the ALSPAC Study Team. British Journal of Urology International 2000; 85 (1): 107-113. DOI: 10.1046/j.1464-410x.2000.00436.x

ALSPAC The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as Children of the 90s) is a unique ongoing research project based in the University of Bristol. It enrolled 14,000 mothers during pregnancy in 1991-2 and has followed most of the children and parents in minute detail ever since.


This press release in PDF format (PDF, 101kB)

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