During pregnancy, it is crucial to be aware what you consume as there are certain foods that you are encouraged to eat or discouraged from eating. There are essential foods that are important for both you and your baby’s needs. While most food are safe, there are certain types of cheeses that you can eat and should try to avoid as it can either make you ill or harm your baby. Cheese can be a reliable source of calcium, protein, and vitamin B and can provide excellent nutrition for both you and the baby. However, some cheese can be dangerous if it is made from unpasteurized milk as they can contain a harmful bacterium known as Listeria Monocytogenes.
The bacterium Listeria Monocytogenes is commonly found in soil, water, and animals such as cattle and poultry. If consumed, this bacterium can cause a condition called listeriosis. This is why pregnant women are often advised to avoid raw (unpasteurized) milk and foods made from unpasteurized milk (some cheeses). It can also be found in processed foods and can even grow in your refrigerator. All foods to be consumed by pregnant women should be cooked or pasteurized as these are the only ways to kill the bacterium. Approximately 1,700 individuals become severely ill in the United States annually, with 260 deaths. The cases of listeriosis among pregnant women has been estimated to be about 17%.
This is important as pregnant women are 20 times more likely to contract listeriosis compared to any other individual in the general population. Other individuals at risk includes those with a weakened immune system. While listeriosis is not threatening to the mother who only has a mild and flu-like illness, it can be fatal for the baby.
Food poisoning occurs when you consume harmful microorganisms causing abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Pregnancy causes changes that increases your susceptibility to foodborne illness compared to other adults. Since the baby’s immune system is not fully developed, it can cause serious issues for both the mother and baby. One of the most serious food poisonings is listeriosis.
The symptoms of listeriosis include mild flu-like symptoms such as:
- Muscle aches
- Upset stomach
- Stiff neck
- Loss of balance
There are many women who do not have any symptoms. The symptoms can also appear as late as two months after being exposed to contaminated food. Even without feeling sick, the infection can be transmitted to the baby. Prevention of listeriosis is therefore crucial. Listeriosis can cause stillbirth, miscarriage, or preterm labor. Newborns affected can have infections of the blood or brain leading to lifelong issues such as intellectual disability, seizures, blindness, paralysis, or impairment of the heart, brain, or kidney.
If you are worried or think that you have listeriosis or have eaten food that has been recalled due to listeria outbreak, you should talk to your doctor immediately. Remember that symptoms can take two months to appear or may not appear at all. A blood test may be required to see if there is an infection. Treatment may include taking antibiotics. To prevent listeriosis, some of the foods to be avoided are foods made from unpasteurized milk, cold meats (deli meats), refrigerated meat pate or spreads, refrigerated seafood, and unwashed raw produce (such as vegetables and fruits). In short, it is best to avoid all raw or undercooked foods (including raw sushi).
To read more about listeriosis, click here!
For cheeses, pregnant women should avoid soft cheeses as they are usually made from unpasteurized milk. Some of the examples of soft cheeses are feta, Camembert, Brie, Mexican style cheeses (queso fresco, queso blanco, panela), and blue veined cheeses. Instead, you can eat hard cheeses such as cheddar and mozzarella (semi-soft). Cheese slices and spreads that are pasteurized is also safe for consumption. The most important thing to remember is to read the labels!
- Cheeses that are safe for consumption
- Hard cheeses – Cheddar, Cheshire, smoked, caerphilly, derby, double Gloucester, edam, English goat’s cheddar, gouda, halloumi, jarlsberg, Lancashire, paneer, parmesan, provolone.
- Soft processed cheese (only if made with pasteurized milk) – cottage cheese, cream cheese, mascarpone, mozzarella, quark, and ricotta.
- Yoghurts – Milk drinks, probiotic yoghurts, as long as the products used are pasteurized.
- Cheeses that should be avoided
- Mold-ripened soft cheeses (both pasteurized and unpasteurized should be avoided!) – brie, camembert, chevre, blue brie, cambozola, and pont l’eveque.
- Blue veined cheeses – Danish blue, dolcelatte, blue wensleydale, gorgonzola, and shropshire blue.
- Soft unpasteurized cheese – pyramide, torta del cesar, and goat’s or sheep’s cheeses
To test your knowledge about foods to avoid in pregnancy, try this quiz! For a table on what types of cheese to eat or not eat, this is a great website that you can refer to. This is another article by the National Health Service in United Kingdom that tells you about the foods to avoid in pregnancy.
Pasteurized Milk Vs Non-Pasteurized Milk
Pasteurization is a process that heats up milk to destroy pathogens that can cause illness. It was developed by Louis Pasteur in 1864 and kills organisms that can cause listeriosis, typhoid fever, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and more. The commonest method in United States is heating milk to 161⁰F for a minimum of 15 seconds. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no nutritional difference between pasteurized and unpasteurized milk.
While raw milk can cause illness if not handled properly, the risk is low. Raw milk advocates believe that it has many benefits such as better skin, nails, and hair; reduction in allergies, reduced rates of asthma, and more. The FDA performed a risk assessment and fount that there is a higher risk of illness caused by deli meats compared to unpasteurized milk. The laws vary from state to state where some allow retail sale while some only allow farm to consumer sales. In some states, the sale of unpasteurized milk is illegal. However, since pregnant women are more susceptible to food borne illness (that could be fatal for the baby), unpasteurized milk is not recommended.
For a detailed read about the potential benefits of raw milk, click here!
General Food Safety
To prepare food, here are some general food safety guidelines that can protect both you and your baby.
Remember to wash you hands with soap and warm water before and handling food, pets, changing diapers, and using the bathroom. Fruits and vegetables should be washed before eating or cooking it. Keep the kitchen clean by ensuring utensils, counter surfaces, and cutting boards are washed with soap and hot water. Sanitization can be done using a tablespoon of liquid bleach per gallon of water. Let the surface air dry. Use paper towels to clean surfaces. Cloth towels should be washed often with hot water in the washing machine.
Separate your raw meat, poultry, seafood, eggs from other foods. Use different cutting boards for meat, poultry, and seafood and another for foods such as fruits and bread. Avoid using the same plate that has been used to hold raw food for your cooked food unless washed in hot water. Sauces for marinades should be boiled before used on cooked food.
To ensure that your food has reached a safe minimum temperature, use a food thermometer and place it on the thickest part of the food. If you are cooking using the microwave oven, you should cover and stir it to ensure that all the food has been cooked evenly. Again, use a food thermometer.
- Refrigerating and freezing
Your fridge should be maintained at 40⁰F or less and the freezer at 0⁰F or less. Food can be thawed in the fridge, microwave or cold water and should be cooked immediately after. It should not be left for more than one hour if the temperature outside is more than 90⁰F or not more than two hours. Meats thawed in the fridge can be refrozen but if thawed in the microwave or cold water, should be cooked before refreezing. Only buy eggs that have been kept in the fridge. Store the eggs in their original carton in the fridge and use within 3 to 5 weeks. For other foods, you can check it here.
Since listeriosis is a condition that can be fatal for your baby, if you have any doubts or concerns, you should always consult your doctor for more detailed advice regarding foods to eat and avoid, food preparation, if you have any symptoms or have consumed any food that may cause listeriosis, and more. Always read the label when you buy dairy-based products (only buy pasteurized products). While you are pregnant, try to avoid milk or milk products at farms or markets unless you can confirm that it was pasteurized.