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 which are foodie myths - and which foods really are best to steer clear from.
Food and drinks to avoid 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 experts say it’s recommended to avoid alcohol altogether. GP Dr Rupert Critchley, also adds that 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 during pregnancy, and meat and poultry are no different. “Salmonella poisoning is most likely to come from these products, so make sure all meat - especially poultry - is well cooked,” says Nutritional Therapist Tracey 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 has 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.”
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,” says Strudwick, who also 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.”
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."
Experts answer your pregnancy food questions
Got a question about what you can and can't eat during pregnancy? Don't worry. Our experts have got you covered.
Can you eat eggs when pregnant?
You can tuck into raw, partially cooked and fully cooked British Lion eggs (eggs with a lion stamp on them) because they are less likely to have salmonella in them. You can also have eggs that are not British Lion, as long as the whites and yolks are cooked thoroughly until solid.
You should avoid raw or partially cooked eggs that are not British Lion as well as duck, goose or quail eggs, unless cooked thoroughly until the whites and yolks are solid.
Can you eat liquorice when pregnant?
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.
Baked cheesecakes that contain raw or partially cooked eggs or unpasteurised cream cheese or toppings made from unpasteurised cream or milk are ok for you enjoy as they have been baked which means that the temperature of the oven will kill any salmonella that may be present, which removes the risk to you.
Unbaked cheesecakes that contain raw or partially cooked eggs or unpasteurised cream cheese or toppings made from unpasteurised cream or milk are a no-no.
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 butter during pregnancy, unless you’re allergic to them. The government previously advised women to avoid nuts during pregnancy, 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.
Can you eat smoked salmon when pregnant?
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 contain harmful bacteria and viruses that can harm your baby. That said, if the prawns are cold but pre-cooked, they are also safe. Find out more here.
Can you eat mayo when pregnant?
While you should avoid homemade mayonnaise because it may contain undercooked or raw eggs, mayo that you buy from the supermarket such as Hellmann's is usually safe to eat during pregnancy as it's made with pasteurised eggs.
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.
Can you eat tuna when pregnant?
The NHS say that you should eat no more than 2 tuna steaks (about 140g cooked or 170g raw) or 4 medium-size cans of tuna (about 140g when drained) per week. This is because tuna has more mercury in it than other fish and if you eat too much mercury, it can be harmful to your baby.