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Is There a Link Between Processed Foods and Autism?

Autism may be linked to the consumption of processed foods during pregnancy, according to a new study.
is there a link between processed foods and autism
Updated: October 24, 2023
Medically reviewed by  Dr. Beth A. Pratt
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Do our diets have an effect on why diagnosed cases of autism in children are on the rise?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 36 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as of 2023.

This is up from rates of 1 in 68 children in 2012 and 1 in 150 children diagnosed with ASD in 2000. 

Scientists are looking for lifestyle factors that could potentially be connected to the higher prevalence of autism in children and adults. 

According to a study by Dr. Selah Naser and colleagues of the University of Central Florida, there may be a link between consuming processed foods during pregnancy and autism. 

The researchers have investigated the relationship between Propionic Acid (PPA), an acid added to processed food and fetal brain development. He believes that high levels of PPA may contribute to the development of autism. 

Children with autism often have gastrointestinal (GI) issues such as constipation and acid reflux and a unique microbiome (or gut bacteria makeup) that includes increased levels of PPA. With this information, Dr. Naser has wondered whether or not there may be a connection between the microbiome and fetal brain development. 

PPA is used in processed foods to prevent mold and increase shelf life. PPA occurs naturally in the body and can increase during pregnancy. When a pregnant woman consumes packaged and processed foods containing PPA, its levels in the body can increase and cross the placenta, reaching the fetus. 

Understanding the Link Between PPA and Autism

To find out whether too much PPA can affect fetal development and lead to autism, Dr. Naser and colleagues took a look at just how PPA affected brain cells. They exposed neural stem cells to excessive amounts of PPA and observed what happened. 

The researchers found that PPA disrupts the natural balance between brain cells. The acid reduces the number of neurons and increases the number of glial cells. Neurons are the brain cells that transmit signals that control the physical body and glial cells support and protect neurons. 

However, glial cells inhibit neurons instead of helping them when the numbers of these cells are unbalanced. Too many glial cells block and crowd the pathways that neurons need to send messages to the body causing the neurons to struggle and find their way along shortened routes. 

This can lead to behaviors seen in children with autism, like repetitive action and difficulty interacting with others. Children with autism have also been found to have brain inflammation, caused by an excess of glial cells. 

Although Naser’s research remains inconclusive for now, its compelling nature suggests that women who are pregnant may want to reevaluate their diets. 

Can I Eat Processed Foods During Pregnancy?

Pregnant woman eats pizza at home
Image source: iStock

There is no harm in eating fewer processed foods during pregnancy. In fact, most processed foods are not part of the ideal pregnancy diet because they contain excessive amounts of salt, sugar and fat. It may be wise to avoid them when possible. The exception is pasteurization, a process that prevents harmful bacteria from reaching the fetus.

PPA is found in packaged cheese, bread, and baked goods. During pregnancy, eating healthy fats like avocado and Greek yogurt is best. But if the insatiable cravings for pastries happens, choose freshly baked items rather than packaged to avoid consuming excessive PPA. 

Things get a little trickier when it comes to cheese. Cheese is a great source of healthy fat, but in pregnancy that comes with several caveats. Expectant mothers need to avoid soft cheeses like feta and Brie and stick to pasteurized varieties. It seems safe and easy to turn to a processed alternative such as American cheese and cheese spreads. However, PPA is often used to prevent mold growth on cheese. Avoiding processed cheese may be the best option.

Understanding the possible link between increased PPA levels and autism empowers parents to make good choices before the birth of their child.

The research also highlights the importance of the connection between gut health and brain function. However, remember that PPA naturally occurs in the body and that it is only in excessive amounts that it may throw brain development out of balance. 

For more resources on nutritiona requirements for babies and children, check out our complete guide to Healthy Snack Ideas for Pregnant and Breastfeeding Moms.

Sources +

Nemours KidsHealth. (2022). Eating during Pregnancy. Retrieved from

Voulgarakis, H. (2022). Autism and the Gut: Co-Occurring Gastrointestinal Challenges and Psychosocial Factors.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, March 23). One in 36 (2.8%) U.S. Children Have Autism: Prevalence Steady Over Two-Year Period. [Press Release]. Retrieved from

Elisa Cinelli

About Elisa

Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based… Read more

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