Why do I need to be wary of raw foods?
If you're pregnant and have heard various bits of advice on what you shouldn't be eating, particularly raw fish, meat and eggs, then you may be wondering whether it isn't all scare-mongering, and whether there's anything left that you can eat.
You will probably also know at least one person who says 'well I ate xxxx during my pregnancy and there's nothing wrong with my baby, so it's all nonsense'. But whenever you eat these raw foods you run some risk of becoming ill due to the bacteria and parasites they may contain and when you're pregnant it's a risk you're better off avoiding.
Food poisoning is never pleasant, but it can be particularly vicious when you're pregnant, putting an extra strain on your already taxed system, and you could become seriously ill. Bacterial infections such as e-coli and salmonella can also be passed on to the fetus who may then suffer problems such as diarrhea and fever after birth. Listeriosis, meanwhile, is a very nasty form of food poisoning to which pregnant women are more susceptible. Caused by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, it can make an expectant mother and newborn baby very ill and even lead to miscarriage and stillbirth. Parasites will deprive you and your baby of important nutrients at a time when you need them most.
Sushi / raw and seared fish -
Raw fish and shellfish may harbour parasites (worms) and bacteria including listeria. Of course the origin of your fish and how it is handled will affect how likely it is to carry such hidden dangers, but the only way to be sure that fish is safe is to cook it thoroughly. When pregnant it makes sense to avoid sashimi and sushi made with raw fish, and any other forms of raw fish, such as smoked salmon and trout. But if you're a sushi addict then don't worry, it needn't mean that sushi is completely off the menu: plenty of sushi varieties are made with cooked fish and vegetables and are fine to eat (just be sure to eat at a reputable restaurant).
If you're eating fish or shellfish at home then be sure to cook well and when eating out ask for your fish to be cooked through, rather than seared. Be aware also that shark, marlin and swordfish can carry high levels of mercury and are probably best avoided: Tuna also carries mercury and the Food Standards Agency recommends that pregnant women limit tuna intake to two cans or one steak per week, which shouldn't be an issue for most women.
Raw / rare meat -
All raw or undercooked meat is a potential health hazard but the most important to avoid are undercooked beef, chicken and processed meats such as sausages. Make sure all meats are cooked through - watch out for that barbecued meat - it's best to ask for steak to be well done in restaurants.
When preparing meat at home it's a good idea to use a separate cutting board to the one you prepare other foods on, and wash all boards and utensils well in hot water after use.
Raw milk products -
Avoid raw (unpasteurised) milk and any cheeses or yoghurts made with raw milks - look on the label to see whether it has been pasteurised if you're not sure.
Raw fruit and veg -
Not to be avoided! But fruit and vegetables can still be contaminated with harmful bacteria such as toxoplasmosis so need to be washed carefully before eating.
Raw / undercooked eggs -
These may carry salmonella so you should cook eggs until the yoke is hard and avoid all raw egg products such as fresh mayonnaise (the shop bought variety will be pasteurised and therefore fine). Be aware that chocolate mousse may contain raw eggs, and don't taste your uncooked mixture if you're baking with raw eggs.
Alfalfa and bean sprouts -
Both these are great health foods usually, but there is a risk of bacterial infection if you eat these raw, so if you do eat bean sprouts when pregnant then best to cook them first.
With all these raw foods the question is one of reducing your risk of infection when pregnant. If you do decide to take the risk of eating raw fish or rare meat when eating out, then at least make sure that you eat in highly reputable restaurants to lessen the chance that you will fall ill.