Some pregnant women avoid eating fish due to mercury and other contaminants found in some fish species.

Yet, fish is a healthy source of lean protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even recommends that pregnant and breastfeeding women eat 8–12 ounces (227–340 grams) of low mercury fish each week (1).

Salmon is considered low in mercury. Still, since some varieties are undercooked, you might wonder whether it’s safe to eat smoked salmon during pregnancy.

This article explains whether pregnant women can safely eat smoked salmon.

Types of smoked salmon explained

Smoked salmon is categorized as either cold- or hot-smoked depending on the specific curing method:

  • Cold-smoked. The salmon is dry-cured and smoked at 70–90℉ (21–32℃). It isn’t fully cooked, which results in a bright color, soft texture, and strong, fishy flavor.
    • This type is often served with spreads, in salads, or atop bagels and toast.
  • Hot-smoked. The salmon is brine-cured and smoked at 120℉ (49℃) until its internal temperature reaches 135℉ (57℃) or higher. Because it’s fully cooked, it has firm, flaky flesh and strong, smoky flavor.
    • This kind is usually served in creamy dips, as an entrée, or atop salads and rice bowls.

In short, cold-smoked salmon is undercooked while hot-smoked salmon should be fully cooked when prepared properly.

Due to the health risks of eating undercooked seafood, pregnant women should not eat cold-smoked salmon.

Labeling

It’s common to see various smoked salmon products at grocery stores or on restaurant menus. Sometimes these products come packaged in vacuum-sealed pouches or tin cans.

Often, food labels state the smoking method. Some even note that the product is pasteurized, which indicates that the fish has been cooked.

If you’re unsure whether a product has been hot- or cold-smoked, it’s best to check with a server or call the company.

Other names for cold-smoked salmon

Cold-smoked salmon may be labeled under a different name, such as:

  • pâté
  • Nova style
  • fish jerky
  • kippered

Lox and gravlax style salmon have been cured in salt but not smoked. As such, they’re considered uncooked fish. Refrigerated fish jerky is considered undercooked fish, while jerky that’s canned or shelf-stable is considered safe to eat during pregnancy without extra cooking (11).

summary

While cold-smoked salmon is smoked at a low temperature and isn’t fully cooked, hot-smoked salmon is smoked at a higher temperature and usually fully cooked.

What are the health effects of eating smoked salmon while pregnant?

One 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of smoked salmon provides numerous beneficial nutrients for pregnant women. These include (2):

  • Calories: 117
  • Fat: 4 grams
  • Protein: 18 grams
  • Carbs: 0 grams
  • Vitamin B12: 136% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Vitamin D: 86% of the DV
  • Vitamin E: 9% of the DV
  • Selenium: 59% of the DV
  • Iron: 5% of the DV
  • Zinc: 3% of the DV

Fish is rich in many of the nutrients necessary for healthy fetal growth and development, such as iodine and vitamins B12 and D (3).

Compared with other sources of protein, fish is often higher in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. DHA plays an especially important role during pregnancy by contributing to fetal brain development, and it has been linked to better infant and child development (4).

Further, multiple reviews on fish intake during pregnancy demonstrate that the benefits of eating low mercury fish outweigh the potential risks for infants’ brain development (3, 4, 5, 6).

Still, there are several risks associated with eating cold-smoked salmon.

High risk of listeria

Eating raw or undercooked fish like cold-smoked salmon may cause several viral, bacterial, and parasitic infections.

This is especially true for pregnant women, who are up to 18 times likelier to contract Listeria than the general population. This infection can pass directly to a fetus through the placenta (7, 8, 9).

This foodborne illness is caused by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. Although the symptoms range from very mild to severe in pregnant women themselves, the illness can cause severe and even fatal side effects for unborn babies (7, 10).

Listeria in pregnant women and unborn babies can result in (7, 11):

  • premature delivery
  • low birth weight of newborns
  • meningitis (inflammation around the brain and spinal corn)
  • miscarriages

Some signs of Listeria in pregnant women include flu-like symptoms, fever, fatigue, and muscle aches. If you notice these symptoms while pregnant and think you might have contracted Listeria, contact your healthcare provider immediately (8).

To reduce your risk, it’s best to avoid raw or undercooked fish like cold-smoked salmon, as well as other sources like deli meats while pregnant (12, 13, 14).

To ensure Listeria bacteria have been killed, you should heat even hot-smoked salmon to 165℉ (74℃) before eating it (11, 15).

May cause parasitic worms

Eating raw or undercooked salmon also poses a risk for parasitic infections (16).

One of the most common parasites in raw or undercooked salmon are tapeworms (17, 18).

Tapeworms can cause stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and sudden or extreme weight loss. They may also result in nutrient deficiencies and intestinal blockages (19).

The best way to kill parasites like tapeworms in salmon is to deep freeze the fish at -31℉ (-35℃) for 15 hours, or heat it to an internal temperature of 145℉ (63℃). 

High in sodium

Both cold- and hot-smoked salmon are initially cured in salt. As such, the final product is often packed with sodium.

Depending on the specific curing and preparation methods, just 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of smoked salmon may contain 30% or more of the daily max recommended sodium intake of 2,300 mg for pregnant women and healthy adults (2, 20).

A diet high in sodium during pregnancy is linked to an increased risk of gestational high blood pressure and preeclampsia, both of which have dangerous side effects for mothers and newborns (21, 22).

Therefore, pregnant women should only eat salt-cured foods like hot-smoked salmon in moderation.

summary

Pregnant women can safely eat hot-smoked salmon when heated to 165℉ or shelf-stable forms, but cold-smoked salmon puts you at risk of tapeworm and Listeria infections. You should never eat uncooked cold-smoked salmon if you’re pregnant.

The bottom line

While smoked salmon is very nutritious, it’s important to avoid unheated cold-smoked varieties if you’re pregnant. These types aren’t fully cooked and pose serious health risks.

On the other hand, hot-smoked salmon is fully cooked and shouldn’t cause dangerous infections. However, if the hot-smoked salmon wasn’t previously heated to 165℉, make sure to do that before eating it to ensure safety. Shelf-stable smoked fish choices are also safe.

Therefore, it’s best to only eat hot-smoked or shelf-stable salmon while pregnant.