Apparently worrying research reported last week in several UK newspapers has been dismissed as inaccurate scaremongering by the scientists who carried it out.
The story referred to allegedly new research which showed a link between mothers following a meat-free diet and the risk of hypospadias - a deformity of the penis - in their children.
The report appeared in two UK newspapers, and was subsequently reproduced in several online publications, including NutraIngredients.com, but the scientists behind the research said that the findings were not new.
The original study was released in 1999 by the Children of the 90s child health project in the UK and was reported on a BBC television programme, leading to widespread reporting at that time.
Study director Professor Jean Golding, who was quoted in the newspaper reports as saying that the research results were "potentially disastrous for the human race" has said she was misrepresented by the newspapers.
When asked this week if a mother's vegetarian diet could be harmful to a foetus, she said: "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."Kate Northstone, co-author of the research, said that the articles, which appeared in the Sunday Express and Western Daily Press, were misleading.
"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."
She continued: "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 scare, and there are several plausible explanations as to the association we found including possible exposure to pesticides and phytoestrogens, both of which are known to act as hormone mimickers.
"However, we were not able to determine any direct causal factors from our research, and 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."
More information can be found on the Children of the 90s website.