That wedge of artisanal brie from the cheese counter beckons you and your baby-growing body once again. But your conscience stops you short. Isn’t this bad for baby? Should I really eat this? So goes the conflicting internal dialogue of the hungry mama-to-be.
Expectant women in the U.S. have long been advised to avoid soft cheeses, deli meats, caffeine and any and all alcohol, but is it necessary to completely forgo these so-called forbidden foods? Not exactly, medical and food experts say. The key is not to take everything you read or hear at face value. Instead, let your doctor’s advice guide you, and study food labels to better inform your decision.
Alcohol: Skip the sip
The official party line on drinking alcohol while pregnant is clear in the United States: Don’t do it. The Department of Health and Human Services says women should not consume alcohol if they may become pregnant, are pregnant or are breastfeeding.
Women often point to their childbearing, wine-sipping counterparts in Europe as proof that a little nip is acceptable in moderation, but even those tolerances appear to be changing. In 2007, the French Ministry of Health, Youth and Sports began recommending that pregnant women avoid drinking alcohol altogether. The United Kingdom and Switzerland also advise abstinence, but with the caveat that pregnant women who choose to drink should limit themselves to one or two servings once or twice a week. Myra Wick, MD, OB/GYN and medical geneticist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, notes that there is no research to indicate how much alcohol, if any, is safe for pregnant women. “Certainly if a patient has a celebratory event, a half glass of wine is probably fine, but we really don’t know just how much is OK,” she says.
Get the hard (and soft) facts on cheese
Pregnant women are often fed the same mantra when it comes to cheese: hard is good, soft is bad. Conventional wisdom is that hard cheeses contain pasteurized milk, and soft cheeses such as feta and brie are made with raw milk, which could still contain the bacteria that are eliminated in the pasteurization process. But that statement isn’t necessarily true, says Richard Sutton, owner of the St. James Cheese Company, a specialty cheese shop in New Orleans. “As a general rule, a decent assumption is that virtually any soft cheese in the U.S. is going to be pasteurized,” he says.
The Food and Drug Administration mandates that if cheese is made with raw milk, it has to be aged 60 days. Doing so with soft cheeses, however, causes spoilage, so most cheese makers opt for pasteurization instead. Consumers are actually more likely to find hard cheeses that contain raw milk because they can better withstand the aging process.
Still, for pregnant women trying to decide which cheeses are safe, the answer isn’t so black and white. Pasteurization in and of itself doesn’t completely exempt nonfirm fromage, Sutton says. Because soft cheeses tend to contain more moisture, they can be more susceptible to bacteria passed along during handling and storage. An easy rule of thumb: When in doubt, ask your doc.
Know which meats to heat
The American Pregnancy Association advises that moms-to-be take caution when eating hot dogs, luncheon meats or deli meats unless they are properly reheated to steaming to avoid the risk of listeriosis, a foodborne illness that can be fatal to babies in the womb.
Eating sliced deli turkey and ham can be risky if left unheated, but mainly when the meat comes from your butcher. That’s because those meats may not be cooked all the way through, and the blade the butcher uses may contain bacteria from other sliced meat, says Rakhi Dimino, MD, OB/GYN at The Woman’s Hospital of Texas in Houston. Because prepackaged luncheon meats usually contain preservatives, they don’t need to be microwaved, Dimino says.
The one exception she makes is hot dogs, since they contain several different types of ground meat. “With meat products, bacteria is more present on the outside. When you grind it up, you’re spreading the bacteria throughout,” she explains.
Caffeinate with caution
Caffeine is another topic likely to get pregnant women all jittery—especially if they haven’t had their morning latte. Caffeine can be most risky during the first 12 weeks, as it has been shown to increase the risk of miscarriage, Dimino says. But the general consensus is that 200 milligrams (mg) of caffeine—or the equivalent of two cups of coffee or five cans of soda—is safe anytime. “Many people completely throw out caffeine throughout pregnancy, and I think that’s going way too far,” Dimino says. “When I was pregnant, I had a chai latte every day. I’m not sure how I would have gotten through without it.”