Children of parents who eat no meat are more likely to suffer from birth defects than children of parents with a wider diet, according to new research in the UK.
Researchers from the University of Bristol analysed 8,000 babies and discovered that those exposed to a meat-free diet in the womb were up to five times more likely to develop deformities.
The discovery has prompted the European Union to begin a study of 3,000 babies to investigate why the risk is so high among vegetarians, a particularly worrying development given the steady growth in the number of vegetarians in recent years following BSE and other meat-related food scares.
The Bristol study revealed vegetarian mothers were more likely to produce boys suffering hypospadia, a painful deformity of the penis linked to testicular cancer. Accounting for risk factors such as smoking, and drinking alcohol, scientists concluded their vegetarian diet was most likely to blame.
Lead researcher Professor Jean Golding said: "These findings are very worrying and potentially disastrous for the human race. It is important they are addressed."
The study pointed out that while it could not prove a link, soya could be a possible cause because it contains chemicals that mimic the female hormone oestrogen.
Soya is widely reported to be beneficial for the health - as we reported yesterday, a report from Cancer Research UK points to soya's role in reducing the incidence of breast cancer - but in recent times it has also been suggested as potentially dangerous. Just last week, for example, oestrogens in soya were highlighted as a risk factor in lowering fertility in men.