The study – published in Environmental Health Perspectives – examined the associations between prenatal exposure to acrylamide and birth outcomes in a group of more than 1,000 European mothers and children. Led by Marie Pedersen from the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL), Spain, the researchers found that dietary exposure to acrylamide while pregnant is associated with reduced birth weight and head circumference.
Mothers-to-be with the highest intake of acrylamide – which is found in commonly consumed foods and coffee –were found to give birth to babies up to 132 grams lighter than babies born to mothers with the lowest intake.
“Consumption of specific foods during pregnancy was associated with higher acrylamide exposure in utero,” said the researchers – noting that possible effects caused by acrylamide could be comparable to lower birth weights caused by maternal smoking.
“If confirmed, these findings suggest that dietary intake of acrylamide should be reduced among pregnant women,” they warned.
Lower birth weights have been associated with adverse health effects in early life and as children grow up, while babies born with a smaller head circumference have been linked to delayed neurodevelopment.
"The potential public-health implications of our findings are substantial," said Pedersen and her colleagues.
Acrylamide is a suspected carcinogen that is formed during by heat-induced reaction between sugar and an amino acid called asparagine. Known as the Maillard reaction, this process is responsible for the brown colour and tasty flavour of baked, fried and toasted foods.
Despite being a carcinogen in the laboratory, many epidemiological studies have reported that everyday exposure to acrylamide in food is too low to be of concern.
The compound first hit the headlines in 2002, when scientists at the Swedish Food Administration first reported unexpectedly high levels of acrylamide in carbohydrate-rich foods.
Since the Swedish discovery a global effort has been underway to amass data about this chemical. More than 200 research projects have been initiated around the world and their findings co-ordinated by national governments, the EU and the United Nations.
The team followed 1101 pregnant women recruited in Denmark, England, Greece, Norway and Spain between 2006-2010.
Pedersen and her colleagues measured blood hemoglobin (Hb) adducts of acrylamide and its metabolite glycidamide in umbilical cord blood – this reflects cumulated exposure in the last months of pregnancy, they noted. Maternal diet was also estimated through food-frequency questionnaires.
Both acrylamide and glycidamide Hb adducts were associated with a statistically significant reduction in birth weight and head circumference, they revealed.
“The estimated difference in birth weight for infants in the highest versus lowest quartile of acrylamide Hb adduct levels after adjusting for gestational age and country was -132 grams; the corresponding difference for head circumference was -0.33 cm,” said the authors.
They said these findings were consistent across countries, and remained after adjustment for factors associated with reduced birth weight.
Source: Environmental Health Perspectives
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1289/ehp.1205327
“Birth Weight, Head Circumference, and Prenatal Exposure to Acrylamide from Maternal Diet: The European Prospective Mother-Child Study (NewGeneris)”
Authors: Marie Pedersen, Hans von Stedingk, Maria Botsivali, Silvia Agramunt, et al