A new study in Clinical Epigenetics, suggests that the epidemic of autism amongst children in the U.S. may be associated with the typical American diet. The study by Renee Dufault and his team explores how mineral deficiencies, affected by dietary factors, such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), could have a potential impact on how the human body frees itself of common toxic chemicals, for instance, pesticides and mercury.

The release comes shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report that estimates a 78% increase in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) between 2002 and 2008 amongst eight year olds. At present, 1 in 88 children has ASD, with the rate being almost five times higher in boys than girls.

Dr. David Wallinga, a physician at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and co-author of the study, said:

“To better address the explosion of autism, it’s critical we consider how unhealthy diets interfere with the body’s ability to eliminate toxic chemicals, and ultimately our risk for developing long-term health problems like autism.”

Leading author, Commander (ret.) Renee Dufault (U.S. Public Health Service), a former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) toxicologist, developed an innovative scientific approach called “macroepigenetics”, which describes the subtle side effects of HFCS consumption, as well as other dietary factors on the human body and their relationship with chronic disorders. By using the model, researchers can take nutritional and environmental factors as well as genetic makeup into account and observe how these interact and contribute to potential developments of a certain health outcome.

Dufault, who is also a licensed special education teacher and founder of the Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute (FIHRI) remarks:

“With autism rates skyrocketing, our public educational system is under extreme stress.”

The authors also discovered, as part of the current study, that the number of autistic children who receive special educational services in the U.S. has risen by 91% between 2005 and 2010.

Given that autism and related disorders affect brain development, the researchers decided to establish how environmental and dietary factors, such as HFCS consumption, could together contribute to the disorder. For instance, consuming HFCS is associated with the dietary loss of zinc. Zinc insufficiency has a negative impact on the body’s ability to eliminate heavy metals. Several heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium and mercury are potent toxins that have adverse effects on young children’s brain development.

Other beneficial minerals, like calcium, are also affected by HFCS consumption, as a loss of calcium further aggravates the devastating impact of exposure to lead on fetuses and children’s brain development. Insufficient calcium levels can also debilitate the body’s ability of getting rid of organophosphates, which belong to a class of pesticides that the EPA, as well as independent scientists have long ago recognized as having especially toxic affects on the young developing brain.

Dr. Richard Deth, a professor of Pharmacology at Northeastern University and a co-author of the study explained:

“Rather than being independent sources of risk, factors like nutrition and exposure to toxic chemicals are cumulative and synergistic in their potential to disrupt normal development. These epigenetic effects can also be transmitted across generations. As autism rates continue to climb it is imperative to incorporate this new epigenetic perspective into prevention, diagnosis and treatment strategies.”

How and why children develop autism is a complex issue that is influenced by numerous different factors. This study has provided an insight into the comprehensive interaction between several of the factors that could lead to the development of this debilitating neurodevelopment disorder. However, in order to control the autism epidemic within the U.S., researchers must continue to analyze the affects of industrialized food systems and exposure to environmental toxins on ASD. These factors are of crucial importance and further research must focus on these key areas to gain further insight.

Written By Petra Rattue