CALGARY -- A University of Calgary study has discovered a link between the consumption of low-calorie sweeteners like stevia and obesity and health risks in newborn babies.

The research, led by Dr. Raylene Reimer and published Wednesday, found the consumption of low-calorie and artificial sweeteners by pregnant women increased body fat in their babies and disrupted gut microbiota.

Officials say the change in the trillions of bacteria that inhabit the intestinal tract makes individuals susceptible to developing a number of serious illnesses.

The study's author says the findings are significant because they can affect babies during their early years, which is a critical time for their development.

"Low-calorie sweeteners are considered safe to consume during pregnancy and lactation, however evidence is emerging from human studies to suggest they may increase body weight and other cardiovascular risk factors," says Reimer, a University of Calgary professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology in a release.

Reimer says stevia, a natural low-calorie sweetener extracted from a plant native to South

America, had a similar impact on a baby's obesity risk later in life.

The study hasn't yet determined exactly how the sweeteners affect weight gain, but researchers believe it may be because of the changes in the gut microbiota.

"A healthy pregnancy, including good nutrition, is important for a healthy baby," adds Reimer. "Our research will continue to examine what makes an optimal diet and more importantly seek to find ways to correct disruptions to gut microbiota should they occur."

Daily consumption of low-calorie sweeteners has also been associated with high-birth weight babies and early menstruation in girls under 10 years old.