Food Safety During Pregnancy

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on September 10, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 10, 2014

Food Safety During Pregnancy

Pregnancy can be an amazing time in a woman’s life. However, it can also be very confusing. Women often get conflicting advice about a number of pregnancy-related issues, including what it is and isn’t safe to eat.

The three major food contamination risks for pregnant women are:

  • Toxoplasma, a parasite found in undercooked meat, unwashed veggies, and dirty cat litter boxes
  • Listeria, a bacterium that can contaminate ready-to-eat foods and unpasteurized dairy. Unlike many bacteria, it can grow in the refrigerator.
  • mercury, a heavy metal that is found in certain types of fish

These contaminants can cause serious illnesses in pregnant women, and may even threaten the life of a developing fetus.

In addition to the major toxins, there are certain foods that pregnant women should avoid or limit for other reasons. Some general guidelines are listed below. However, it’s important to discuss your pregnancy diet with your doctor.

Avoiding Listeria

Listeria is often found in contaminated water and soil. In some cases, animals are carriers as well. It can be found in uncooked meats and vegetables grown in contaminated soil. Bacteria are often killed in the cooking process, however Listeria may still be present in some packaged, ready-to-eat foods. Foods in which Listeria is often present include:

  • processed or prepared lunch meats
  • meat spreads, such as pâté
  • hot dogs
  • cold, smoked seafood
  • soft cheeses such as brie, camembert, and feta
  • unpasteurized dairy products

In general, women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant should avoid these foods. However, hot dogs and lunchmeats can be eaten if served steaming hot. Soft cheeses can be eaten if made from pasteurized milk.  

This type of bacteria can be devastating to a baby in the womb. Listeria can easily pass through the placenta, causing infection, premature delivery, and possible miscarriage. According to the American Pregnancy Association (APA), 22 percent of Listeria infections in pregnant women result in the death of the unborn child.

Keeping Away From Mercury

Most fish contain trace amounts of mercury, but it tends to build up in larger and older fish. Pregnant and nursing women should avoid fish that are high in mercury. Mercury can potentially damage their baby’s developing nervous system. Fish that tend to be high in mercury are:

  • swordfish
  • shark
  • king mackerel
  • tilefish

Many commonly eaten fish are considered to be low in mercury. These fish can be a great addition to a pregnancy diet. They contain omega-3 fatty acids, which contribute to heart health and are good for fetal brain development. If you don’t like fish, talk to your doctor about whether you need an omega-3 supplement.

Doctors recommend eating up to 12 ounces of any of the following fish each week:

  • shrimp
  • crab
  • scallops
  • canned light tuna
  • salmon
  • catfish
  • cod
  • tilapia

However, fish should always be eaten hot. Preserved or smoked fish should be avoided.

Preventing Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis can be very risky during pregnancy, especially for cat owners. In order to reduce your risk, you have to change both your diet and your cat care. To minimize risk, you should:

  • rinse all fruit and vegetables before eating since the parasite is often found in soil
  • thoroughly cook all meats
  • make certain to clean your hands well after handing any cat litter or sand and, if possible, have a spouse, friend, or relative change the litter during your pregnancy


All alcohol should be avoided during pregnancy and breastfeeding. The negative effects of alcohol are widely documented, and there is no safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy.

 Alcohol has been shown to significantly increase the risk for:

  • fetal alcohol syndrome
  • developmental disorders
  • miscarriages

Alcohol is still a danger to children while breastfeeding. Discernible amounts of alcohol are present in breast milk. Alcohol should be avoided until a child is no longer breastfed.

Raw and Undercooked Foods

There is the potential for bacterial contamination in any raw or undercooked food. Because of this, pregnant women should ensure that all food is cooked thoroughly. This is particularly true for foods that are known to carry Salmonella, such as:

  • chicken
  • shellfish
  • eggs

Pregnant women should also wash their hands after handling eggs. Salmonella is most commonly found on the shells. Additionally, eggs should be rinsed thoroughly before cooking.


Moderate amounts of caffeine are considered safe to ingest during pregnancy. However, caffeine is a stimulant, and can increase heart rate and blood pressure in both mother and the developing fetus.

Few studies exist to prove caffeine’s effect on humans during pregnancy. According to the APA, pregnant women are encouraged to consume no more than 200 milligrams (mg) of caffeine a day. Remember that caffeine isn’t just found in coffee. Tea, soda, and chocolate also contain caffeine.


There is a small risk that honey could be contaminated with botulism or other toxins. These can be dangerous for pregnant and breastfeeding women. They can also potentially harm the fetus or a child younger than one year of age. 

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