There’s no bigger motherhood minefield than deciding what not to eat when you’re pregnant - but it’s often hard to distinguish between fact and fiction and figure out whether we’re being sensible or overcautious.
There are so many different studies and reports for mums to read, making it difficult to know which foods you should and shouldn’t be eating throughout the nine months you’re expecting.
We spoke to a range of nutrition and pregnancy experts to find out what are foodie myths - and which foods really are best to steer clear from.
Unpasteurised milk and soft cheeses
Unpasteurised products may contain bacteria that could make both yourself and your baby ill, which is why they are best avoided when pregnant. “Bacteria in unpasteurised milk could cause problems such as salmonella, listeria or E. coli,” says Shona Wilkinson, head nutritionist at Nature's Best.
“When you are pregnant, your immune system is lower and this is why unpasteurised milk should be avoided during pregnancy but is fine any other time.”
“When you are pregnant, your immune system is lower and this is why unpasteurised milk should be avoided during pregnancy but is fine any other time.” This also extends to soft cheeses. “Soft cheeses are made with unpasteurised milk so should be avoided,” adds Shona. “Such cheeses include brie, camembert, feta, roquefort and ricotta.”
Tracy Strudwick, nutritional therapist at Nuffield Health, says that eating these products could directly harm the baby. "High levels of the bacteria Listeria Monocytogenes may be found in unpasteurised milk and cheese, and listeriosis, while rare in the UK, can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or severe illness in newborns,” she says. “Toxoplasmosis is also a risk with unpasteurised milk and milk products, which in rare cases can lead to abnormalities in the foetus. Pate is another potential source of listeria bacteria and should be avoided during pregnancy.”
It won’t come as a surprise to most pregnant women that alcohol is best avoided during those exciting nine months, although there are always debates going on about whether one should abstain totally or whether a small glass of wine is allowed. At the moment, Strudwick says, it’s recommended to avoid alcohol altogether. “The Department of Health recommendations are now to have no alcohol during pregnancy,” she says. “Don't worry if you drank alcohol before you knew you were pregnant, but you should avoid it for the remainder of your pregnancy. Drinking alcohol while pregnant has been linked to a condition called foetal alcohol syndrome causing physical and mental problems for the baby.”
Plus, adds GP Dr Rupert Critchley, you should start thinking about cutting out alcohol even before falling pregnant. “The Chief Medical Officers for the UK recommend that if you're pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all to keep risks to your baby to a minimum,” he says. “The more you drink, the greater the risk of long term harm to the baby."
Undercooked meat and poultry
It’s wise to stay away from many undercooked products in pregnancy, and meat and poultry is no different. “Salmonella poisoning is most likely to come from these products, so make sure all meat - especially poultry - is well cooked,” Strudwick. “Take care when handling raw meat and store it separately in the fridge to avoid cross-contamination.”
Dr Critchley agrees. “Stay safe with meats and make sure that they are well cooked,” he says. “Raw or undercooked meats, even at your local salad bar, can contain parasites such as toxoplasmosis which can have serious implications for your baby’s health."
It will come as a blow to sushi lovers, but raw seafood is a no-no during pregnancy. “Raw seafood, such as sushi and oysters, is best avoided when pregnant,” says Strudwick. “Occasionally, raw fish such as salmon may contain small parasitic worms that can cause illness, and raw shellfish can contain harmful viruses and bacteria. Sushi fish, generally, has been flash-frozen, which destroys these pathogens, but it’s better to err on the side of caution.”
It’s also worth avoiding certain types of fish, even if cooked, due to the large amounts of mercury that could be present. “Marlin, shark and swordfish may contain high levels of mercury, which can be harmful to the developing nervous system of the foetus,” she adds. “Mercury is concentrated up the food chain, so is found in the highest amounts in large, predatory fish such as these, as well as tuna, so it’s recommended that pregnant women don’t eat more than two portions of fresh tuna or four medium sized tins per week.”
While a little caffeine is fine, be careful with how much you’re consuming, as chances are, the amount you were drinking before you fell pregnant is too much once you’re expecting. “You don't have to give up on caffeine completely, but current guidelines recommend not to drink more than 300mg per day, the equivalent of around two cups of coffee,” says Strudwick. “Don't forget that soft drinks like cola and energy drinks also contain caffeine, as does chocolate. As a precaution, stick to healthier alternatives such as herb teas, water fruit infusions and diluted fruit juice.”
Dr Critchley points out that too much caffeine - even in drinks we may not expect to be laden with the addictive stuff - can harm the baby. "Try to avoid too much coffee and tea,” he says. “High caffeine intake can lead to low baby weight and even miscarriage. Furthermore, fizzy and sugary drinks can also contain caffeine and can be packed full of chemicals and sweeteners, all of which are best avoided."
It’s not just undercooked meat and poultry that should be steered clear of, but deli meats too, according to Lily Soutter, a nutritionist at Nuffield Health. “Deli meats or any cold cuts which have been cooked prior to purchase should be avoided,” she says. “Listeria, a dangerous bacteria, can be present and can cause side-effects for your developing baby. While cases are rare, to be on the safe side, I would either avoid them completely or heat your roast beef sandwich thoroughly in the microwave.”
Other raw food products to be avoided are those containing eggs. “Avoid raw or undercooked eggs and mayonnaise,” says Dr Clare Morrison, a GP at MedExpress. “If you eat eggs, ensure they are thoroughly cooked to prevent the risk of salmonella food poisoning.”
Dr Critchley says that while runny eggs should be avoided, if eggs are thoroughly cooked, they’re a positive, healthy choice. “Eggs are nutritious and an excellent source of protein,” he says. “However, make sure to cook them through well until both the whites and yolks are solid.”
While a little bit of liquorice is absolutely fine, according to research, if you have an addiction to the sweet stuff, you may have to wean yourself off it once pregnant.
“Recent research carried out by the University of Helsinki concluded that women should avoid consuming large amounts of liquorice during pregnancy after studying the effects on 400 young adolescents,” says Soutter. “The findings showed evidence that youths who were exposed to large amounts of liquorice while in the womb performed less well than others in cognitive reasoning tests.”
However, if you love the sweet treat, don’t despair. “The researchers, however, stressed that occasional consumption of liquorice during pregnancy is not dangerous, and there are no current UK guidelines which suggest pregnant women should avoid liquorice,” she adds.
Unwashed fruit and vegetables
You’re hopefully already in the habit of washing your fruit and veg before eating it - but if not, now’s a great time to start, according to Dr Critchley. "After a busy day at work we may be more inclined not to wash our fruit and vegetables,” he says. “However, traces of soil can increase your risk of infection such as toxoplasmosis, so make sure you take extra care in washing your greens through with a colander."
Your questions, answered:
- Are nuts safe to eat during pregnancy? You might be confused when it comes to nuts, but according to the NHS guidelines, you can eat peanuts or food containing peanuts, such as peanut buttder during pregnancy, unless you’re allergic to them. The government previously advised women to avoid nuts during pregnany, but recent research has shown no reason why they should be avoided.
- Is mozzarella safe to eat during pregnancy? So long as mozzarella is made from pasteurised milk it’s fine to eat during pregnancy. You should avoid soft cheeses such as brie, Camembert, Roquefort and Gorgonzola.
- Is lobster safe to eat during pregnancy? According to NHS guidelines, lobster is safe to eat as long as it is cooked.
- Is salmon safe to eat during pregnancy? According to NHS guidelines, smoked fish, which included smoked salmon and smoked trout, is safe to eat when you’re pregnant.
- Are prawns safe to eat during pregnancy? Shellfish is safe as long as it is cooked, as raw shellfish contains harmful bacteria and viruses that can harm your baby. That said, if the praws are cold but pre-cooked, they are also safe.
- Are mushrooms safe to eat during pregnancy? Although you should avoid eating raw mushrooms, when cooked, they are great to eat during pregnancy as they contain riboflavin, essential for your baby’s bone, muscle and nerve development.