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Headlines Published on 27 February 2013

Title Eating high quantities of common foods during pregnancy can affect babies' health, EU study shows

A groundbreaking European Union (EU)-funded research project has shown that eating high quantities of common foods such as fried potatoes - or even toast – during pregnancy can lead to significant health problems for the new-born child.

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Backed by €13.6 million of EU funding, the NewGeneris project revealed clear links between the consumption by the mother of a chemical known as acrylamide, which is found in everyday foods such as fried potatoes, crisps, breakfast cereals, biscuits and coffee, and the birth weight and head circumference of the baby. It is the first study of its kind to focus directly on acrylamide levels in newborns.

Following a detailed survey of 1,100 mother/child pairs from Denmark, the UK, Greece, Norway and Spain, NewGeneris researchers showed that babies of mothers with high consumption levels of acrylamide were up to 132 grams lighter than those born to mothers with a low acrylamide intake, while their head circumference was up to 0.33cm smaller. Low birth weight is known to be a major risk factor for health in the first years of life, as well as having a strong association with the later development of disorders including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Reduced head circumference has been associated with delayed neurodevelopment.

While it was previously shown by NewGeneris researchers that acrylamide is able to cross the placenta into the foetus, this is the first time the specific effects have been identified.

Acrylamide is a chemical produced by cooking starch-rich foods at high temperatures, such as when baking or frying. The higher the temperature and the longer the cooking period, the higher the level of acrylamide. Heavily toasted bread contains more acrylamide than lightly toasted bread, for example.

As a result of these findings, NewGeneris researchers say, regulatory agencies should now consider limiting permissible acrylamide levels in manufactured foods and advising pregnant women to minimise their consumption of high acrylamide foods.

This major step forward in our understanding of acrylamide is one of the first results so far of the NewGeneris project. Co-ordinated by the University of Maastricht in The Netherlands, and involving 25 research institutions from 16 EU Member States, the NewGeneris project was set up in 2006 to investigate the impact on babies of exposure during pregnancy to a broad range of toxic chemicals, either carcinogenic or damaging to the immune system, found in food or the environment.

In order to do this, the NewGeneris group focused on ‘biomarkers’ – the chemical or biological changes in human fluids or tissues which indicate exposure to, or the early effects of, these toxins, without having to wait for the later disease to develop. In the case of NewGeneris, biomarkers were studied in umbilical cord blood collected at birth. These indicators of the mother’s and her baby’s exposure to the various toxins were then compared with detailed food questionnaires completed by the mothers, and with developments subsequently seen in the babies.

In addition to acrylamide, NewGeneris studied about a dozen toxins found in processed food, tobacco smoke polluted air, water, contaminated food and alcohol.

Although the project formally came to an end in 2011, the immense quantity of data it generated continues to be explored. Another finding indicates that, given the same exposure to carcinogens in the womb, boys are more likely than girls to develop leukemia.

With more findings expected to be published in coming months, it is already clear that the far-reaching work of NewGeneris could be a major landmark in how we understand the impacts of various common chemicals on the health of newborn babies – and how, as a society, we use this knowledge to improve human health.

Project details

  • Project acronym: NewGeneris
  • Participants: The Netherlands (Coordinator), Spain, Sweden, Greece, United Kingdom, Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, Finland, Norway, France, Croatia, Germany
  • Project FP6 16320
  • Total costs: €15 661 101
  • EU contribution: €13 594 976
  • Duration: February 2006 - July 2011

More information:

  • Project web site
  • Project details