Acrylamide is produced naturally when starch-rich food, such as potatoes, are cooked at high temperatures – for example, during frying or baking.
The researchers found pregnant women who had a high intake of acrylamide were more likely to have a baby with a lower birth weight and a smaller head circumference than those who did not.
The scientists concluded: “Dietary exposure to acrylamide was associated with reduced birth weight and head circumference. Consumption of specific foods during pregnancy was associated with higher acrylamide exposure in utero. If confirmed, these findings suggest that dietary intake of acrylamide should be reduced among pregnant women.”
Children’s head size has been has been linked to slower neurodevelopment and lower birth weights have been associated with adverse health effects in early life.
Babies whose mothers had a high dietary intake of acrylamide were revealed to be up to 132gms lighter than babies from mothers who had a low intake.
The research, led by the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona, drew upon studies at 20 research centres across Europe. The researchers examined the diets of 1,100 pregnant women in Denmark, England, Greece and Norway between 2006 and 2010.
The study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) reassured consumers last month about the safety of acrylamide in chips after the Daily Express published a story linking it to cancer.
The FSA said: "The results from the FSA’s most recent survey of acrylamide in food showed the average level found in French fries bought from fast food outlets was well below the levels that would cause concern about risk to human health.
"The FSA does not advise people to stop eating any of these foods, but to follow government advice on eating a healthy, balanced diet.”
Meanwhile, EFSA’s annual report on acrylamide revealed that levels of the chemical in French fries from fresh potatoes were rising. But this was not consistent throughout Europe, it added.
Crispbread and instant coffee
The report also noted higher levels of acrylamide in coffee and coffee substitutes and in crispbread and instant coffee.
But it detected “downward trends” in acrylamide levels in processed cereal-based foods for infants and young children. Lower levels were also detected in non-potato based savoury snacks and biscuits and rusks for infants and young children.
EFSA concluded that levels of the chemical in food and drink remain “largely unchanged”.
The report was produced by EFSA’s Dietary and Chemical Monitoring Unit using 13,000 data references on acrylamide in food and drink from 25 European countries.