Finishing in the top five of the Helsinki Challenge competition, team SafePreg demonstrated that the ingredient glycyrrhizin found in liquorice can harm fetal development. Glycyrrhizin is found in sweet and salty liquorice, among other things. The substance harms the functioning of the placenta’s filtering enzyme. The enzyme protects the developing fetus from its mother’s high stress hormone levels and cortisol in particular. Stress hormones influence the development of a fetus’s organs in several ways.
Bringing new research to maternity clinics
After the competition, the team has continued working on the health of upcoming generations, and its leader, academy professor Katri Räikkönen is pleased with the results they have achieved.
”National recommendations concerning pregnancy diets have been changed on the basis of our research. This is a real victory, both scientifically and societally,” Räikkönen says.
The National Nutrition Council’s recommendations concerning glycyrrhizin were changed from the start of the year. Now, it is recommended to have no glycyrrhizin at all during pregnancy. Previously, official recommendations told mothers to avoid glycyrrhizin during pregnancy only if the mother suffered from high blood pressure. Consuming large single doses was also discouraged. However, glycyrrhizin is a flavouring and sweetening agent commonly used in foods such as flavoured yoghurts, ice cream, and herbal teas, among many others.
Glycyrrhizin does not only raise a mother’s blood pressure during pregnancy as previously thought, but it also affects the placenta, which in turn has an impact on the child’s development later in life. According to the research, children of mothers who consumed glycyrrhizin during pregnancy get weaker results in tests measuring intelligent reasoning skills, and are more likely to display symptoms of ADHD. The children are more sensitive to stress, and girls start puberty starts slightly earlier than normal.
App awaits funding
In line with the new recommendations, glycyrrhizin should be avoided completely during pregnancy. This is difficult, however, since products containing just small amounts of the substance do not need to include it in the product description.
”The studies have not demonstrated a safe limit for glycyrrhizin, so all products containing the substance should be avoided during pregnancy. There are over 400 of these products on the market.”
Team SafePreg sought funding from Helsinki Challenge for a smartphone application, which would help expectant mothers and their families to find out what products contain glycyrrhizin, even if not listed in the product descriptions. By scanning a barcode, the consumer would know whether the product is safe for a pregnant mother and her baby, based on up-to-date research information and dietary recommendations. The project has not yet received funding.
”Once we receive funding, we will start working with programmers and service designers. The application needs to be as usable as possible. The purpose is also to develop the database of products containing glycyrrhizin so that manufacturers and importers can add their product to the list themselves.”
Helsinki Challenge encouraged thinking differently
Helsinki Challenge provided the research team with new partners for research projects and an improved notion of the societal value of their own research. They also got new ideas about how to engage different stakeholders in their work.
“Even though our team consists of experienced scientists, we had not thought of how much interest our research could generate outside the scientific world. The competition increased our courage to contact different stakeholders and influence their activity through our own research and science.”