New research has reinforced the benefit of eating eggs during pregnancy - with findings pointing to longer term benefits for the developing child.
Previous studies demonstrated that supplementation of choline - a nutrient found in significant quantities in eggs - during the third trimester of pregnancy could improve an infant’s cognitive function.
Now scientists in the United States have followed up this research, looking at the same children seven years on, and have reported lasting benefits.
“The findings provide new evidence that the beneficial effects of maternal choline supplementation during pregnancy for offspring attentional function endure into early childhood,” said the scientists.
“Moreover, emerging evidence from other tests administered to these children at age seven indicates that the benefits of higher maternal choline intake during the third trimester are not limited to sustained attention, but also include improved working memory and problem-solving."
The research was carried out by a team at Cornell University, New York. They said that numerous rodent studies had demonstrated developmental programming of offspring cognition by maternal choline intake, with prenatal choline deprivation causing lasting adverse effects and supplemental choline producing lasting benefits.
However, few human studies had evaluated the effect of maternal choline supplementation on offspring cognition, with none following children to school age.
The original study found that higher maternal choline supplementation during the third trimester of pregnancy (930 vs. 480 mg/day) improved infant information processing speed (a measure of cognitive function). The figure of 480 mg/day is recognised as the recommended average daily intake level.
A benefit was also seen at the lower level of intake for infants born to mothers who were enrolled in the study for a greater duration of pregnancy. The authors concluded, “even modest increases in maternal choline intake during pregnancy may produce cognitive benefits for offspring.”
In the follow-up study, the same children were assessed at seven years old. The scientists said that the children of women who received just the recommended daily intake of choline did not perform as well as the children whose mothers received a higher dosage.
“Maternal intake of the recommended amount of choline during the third trimester resulted in poorer offspring sustained attention than was demonstrated by the offspring of mothers who consumed twice that amount, when children were assessed at age seven years,” they said in their report.
“Sustained attention (and attentional control more broadly) contributes to a wide variety of higher cognitive functions such as problem-solving and working memory and is positively associated with school performance.
As a result of their research, the scientists raise concern about the recommended daily intake level of choline. "Emerging evidence from other tests administered to these children at age seven indicates that the benefits of higher maternal choline intake during the third trimester are not limited to sustained attention, but also include improved working memory and problem-solving."
Last year choline was mentioned in a UN report which highlighted the importance of eggs in the diet.
UN Nutrition – the UN agency that looks into such issues as hunger, under-nutrition, overweight and obesity across the world – produced a discussion paper on livestock-derived foods.
The report said humans have relied on food such as eggs for 100,000 years and the report points to a list of vital nutrients they provide.
They said that eggs were also rich in many micronutrients. Eggs had a high concentration of choline and were also an important source of vitamins A, B12, D, E and folate, as well as bioavailable minerals, especially selenium, but also iron and zinc.