Dairy Exec: Studies address dairy and E. coli, autism

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Two interesting dairy-related studies were published recently in PLOS ONE.

The first, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has detected a higher rate of seizures among autistic children who were fed infant formula containing soy rather than milk protein. 

A University of Wisconsin-Madison study has detected a higher rate of seizures among autistic children who were fed infant formula containing soy rather than milk protein. The study shows that children with autism who were fed soy formula had 2.6 times as many febrile seizures as the children fed non-soy formula in the database.

Dr. Cara Westmark, a senior scientist with the Department of Neurology at UW-Madison and lead author, says the study of 1,949 children first was sparked by a development in a totally unrelated effort: mouse testing of a drug that was hoped would inhibit seizures. When the mice’s diet was changed, the rate of seizures went down by 50 percent. The major difference in the diets? The source of protein, researchers found.

“The standard diet was soy-based, while the purified diet was casein- or dairy-based,” Westmark says. “We were intrigued that a dietary alteration was as effective as many medicines in reducing seizure incidence and wanted to pursue that finding." 

The “why” behind this discovery remains a mystery, but Westmark points to the high level of plant-derived estrogens in soy products as a possible cause of the excess seizures.

She is careful to caution against confusing correlation and causation, however. 

“We can say that we have a potential association between the use of soy-based formula and seizures in autistic children; we can't say that this is cause and effect,” she notes.

And, she notes, “this is not saying that all autistic children who eat soy-based formula are going to develop seizures.” Still, the increase is worrying.

“The prevalence of autism is increasing and currently affects one American child in 88,” she notes. “Soy is a widespread ingredient in many food products and 25 percent of infant formulas are soy based, so this is something that needs to be studied.”

The second study, conducted at University of Florida, shows that a new biological treatment may be able to help dairy cows stave off E. coli and other uterine diseases. This finding also has potential to help improve food safety for humans, scientists say.

Kwang Cheol Jeong, an assistant professor in animal sciences at University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, infused chitosan microparticles – an antimicrobial material derived from dissolved shrimp shells – into diseased cow uteri. The study’s findings suggest chitosan microparticles kill bacteria in the uteri, he said, adding that it may someday be possible for similar chitosan microparticles to be used to help humans who have become ill from consuming E. coli-contaminated food.

Developing a new antimicrobial agent is critical to human and animal health, said Jeong, a member of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. 

“Dangerous infections are diminishing the role of some antibiotics, making them less able to treat infections, as pathogens are developing resistance to the drugs,” he said.

Roughly 23,000 people die in the U.S. annually because of exposure to pathogens that don’t respond to antibiotics. 



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