If you’re pregnant, it can be a little overwhelming to think of all the foods that you can’t eat during pregnancy. No raw fish. No unpasteurized cheese. Even prepared salads are out of bounds. It can seem a lot.
These foods are a ‘no go’ during pregnancy because they’re more likely to harbor bacteria called listeria. Listeria is food-borne bacteria, just like E. coli. However, unlike E. coli, listeria can cross the placenta and cause infection or blood poisoning in the baby. In severe cases, it’s been linked to miscarriage and preterm delivery.
Each year, there are 2500 reported cases of listeria poisoning in the US. Out of that 2500, about 500 of them are pregnant women. When you do the math, that's about 1 in 8000 pregnant women. That’s pretty slim odds, but still, it’s best to avoid listeria-harboring foods until after your baby is born, just to be on the safe side.
When I was pregnant with my son, I craved penne carbonara a lot in the last trimester. Penne carbonara is made with raw egg so I held out and sure enough, it was the first meal we had delivered to the hospital after my son was born. I still remember every bite, it was that good!
Here’s the lowdown on what to avoid and how you can lower your chances of listeria poisoning.
· Raw or undercooked seafood including sashimi, crudo and raw oysters. Cook any fish until its opaque (not see-through) in the middle.
· Fish high in mercury. Mercury has been linked to brain damage and development delays in babies. The bigger the fish, the higher up on the food chain it is and the more mercury it could contain. That includes larger fish including shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tuna and tilefish. On the flip side, smaller fish such as anchovies and sardines are low in mercury. So are wild-caught cold-water fish like salmon, cod and halibut. As a bonus, cold-water fish are higher in Omega 3s so they promote heart and skin health along with your baby’s brain development.
· Tuna more than once a week is not advised. Canned tuna is generally lower in mercury than tuna in other forms so don’t sweat it if you have canned tuna from time to time. I’d recommend limiting tuna to one serving per week and eating other types of seafood that are lower in mercury such as wild-caught salmon, trout, cod, halibut, shrimp, Pollock and tilapia.
· Smoked or pickled seafood that’s unpasteurized including lox, kippered and nova style fish because there’s a greater chance they could contain listeria. If you have to have it, canned smoked salmon has been pasteurized and is safe to eat.
· Raw or undercooked eggs. Save your ‘over easy’ eggs for after the birth and for now, cook your eggs so the yolks are firm and not runny.
· Desserts that contain raw eggs including mousse, meringue, tiramisu, egg nog and cookie dough (sorry).
· Home-made mayonnaise and home-made sauces such as hollandaise, béarnaise, aioli and Caesar salad dressings because these all contain raw eggs. Store-bought versions of these sauces are okay and if you’re eating out, just check with the restaurant to see if their sauces use raw eggs.
· Avoid raw milk and raw cheeses. Legally, all milk sold in the US has to be pasteurized so you don’t have to worry about the milk you buy from the grocery store. If you do buy milk straight from a farm or farmers market, check to see if its pasteurized.
· Avoid soft cheeses like brie, Camembert, Roquefort, feta, Gorgonzola, and Mexican style cheeses like queso blanco and queso fresco. Most of these cheeses are imported and could be made with raw milk so it's best to avoid them unless you can guarantee that they’ve been made with pasteurized milk. Swiss, cheddar and mozzarella are safe to eat during pregnancy.
· Raw or undercooked meat. Cook your meat all the way through so no ‘pink’ is visible, especially ground beef and pork.
· Pâté (raw chicken liver). If you love the stuff, you can eat canned pâté which has been pasteurized.
· Luncheon meats including ham, roast beef, bologna, salami, pepperoni and hot dogs. Luncheon meats are more likely to harbor listeria so if you have to have them, heat them until they’re steaming (about 165° F.).
5 safe food tips
1. Wash your hands before you cook or eat your food to reduce bacteria.
2. Wash your fruits and veggies before eating them. It’s good practice to wash off any residue from herbicide and pesticide anyway.
3. Keep your fridge below 40° F and throw out leftover food that's been sitting out for more than two hours.
4. Don’t eat picnic or buffet food that’s been sitting out for more than two hours. Sadly, this includes pre-prepared fruit and veggie salads because they can be a breeding ground for listeria too.
5. Don’t eat the stuffing from a roast chicken or turkey, unless you know the insides have been heated to at least 165° F.