A preservative in processed foods could hold one of the clues to the rising rates of autism in the U.S., according to a laboratory-based study by University of Central Florida researchers.  Scientists exposed human neural stem cells to high levels of the food preservative Propionic Acid or PPA and found that it reduced the development of neurons.

The preservative is found in packaged and processed foods, such as baked goods and cheese.  The findings could mean that consuming too many foods that contain PPA during pregnancy can affect the development of the brain of the fetus or newborn and increase the risk of autism, researchers said.  The study doesn’t draw a cause-and-effect conclusion about PPA and autism. And because it was done in the lab, it’s too soon to tell what the findings mean for humans. But researchers say it’s another reminder about the importance of eating homemade, healthy foods during pregnancy.