Whether you’re trying to conceive or newly pregnant (congratulations, by the way!), many people’s first question in preparation for pregnancy is all about “what do I need to do with my diet to make sure my baby is safe whilst nourishing myself?”
Naturally, pregnancy nutrition is almost always synonymous with food safety, or the “what to avoid” list of foods, so in this blog post, we are summarising some key things you should know about food safety.
Note that food safety considerations do vary around the world, so we are basing our blog on the Food Standards Australia New Zealand guidelines. Please consult your local government guidelines for your specific country for more specific advice, and of course, chat to your individual health care provider.
Pssst… want to get expert-backed advice on food safety in pregnancy in a one-hour masterclass complete with downloadable eGuide so you can find confidence and clarity when it comes to pregnancy nutrition without the endless late-night Googling? Our Food Safety in Pregnancy Masterclass designed and delivered by expert fertility & pregnancy dietitian and nutritionist, Kaylee Slater APD, is now available for you to watch!
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What is food safety?
Firstly, let’s clarify what we mean when we talk about food safety. As noted by the Australian Institute of Food Safety, it refers to the handling, preparing and storage of food in ways that best minimise the risk of people becoming sick from food-borne illness.
Food Safety During Pregnancy – Why is food safety so important during pregnancy?
You might be wondering, “why is food safety so important during pregnancy?”. Well, it’s because pregnant women are considered to be more vulnerable during this time due to changes in their immune response. Important note here; this does not mean that the immune system is supressed, rather it is a modulation of the immune system which incurs a different type of response to immune threats or microorganisms at different stages of pregnancy (Mor & Cardenas, 2020).
We talked a little about this in our latest podcast with team pregnancy dietitian, Kaylee Slater APD. What is important to understand are the safe practices and ways to minimise risk, but as qualified and expert dietitians, we also want to also ensure you are still enjoying food and not entering a perfectionist-type mindset. So, let’s dive deeper into some of the main points to note during pregnancy.
There are two extremely important food-borne illnesses to mention: Listeria & Salmonella
Listeria is a foodborne pathogen (an organism that causes disease) which leads to an illness called, listeriosis. Around 16-27% of all infections with Listeria occur in pregnant women, most commonly in the third trimester and in healthy women without predisposing conditions (Jackson et al., 2010). While maternal symptoms can vary and be mild or even asymptomatic, foetal infection is of higher concern.
Symptoms may include gastroenteritis (cramps, diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea), meningitis, or sepsis (Moran et al., 2018). Though they do vary and can be non-specific which can make them difficult to diagnose (Lamont et al., 2011).
The majority of cases are sporadic and occur due to poor manufacturing practices of foods (Mylonakis et al., 2002). Some potential high-risk foods:
- Dairy products such as soft cheese (this is mainly due to inadequate pasteurization, unpasteurized dairy products, or contamination post pasteurization) (Linnan et al., 1988)
- Cold cured or processed meats
- Pâté (McLauchlin et al., 1991)
- Raw shellfish and seafood
You can read more about Listeria and food here.
Though it is quite rare, there is considerable importance placed on ensuring best practices are followed to avoid listeria infection, due to the high consequences for both mother and baby.
It’s also important to note, these are only some of the high-risk foods, if you want to get the answers on all things food safety in pregnancy, then join us for our Food Safety During Pregnancy Masterclass designed by Certified Pregnancy Dietitian & Nutritionist Kaylee Slater, click here to learn more about the masterclass which comes with a companion eGuide.
Salmonella is one of the more ‘well-known’ foodborne illnesses (Eng et al., 2014). In terms of symptoms, the most common include fever, typical gastro symptoms like vomiting, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain or cramping as well as bacteraemia (presence of bacteria in the blood) (Majowicz et al., 2010).
Again, it is not that pregnant women are more likely to get sick with salmonella it’s more that if you do, there is just a small risk of harm to the baby. Therefore, most guidelines just recommend being mindful of potential salmonella exposure.
Based on this, the below foods are best to be limited or avoided while pregnant as they are at higher risk for salmonella contamination:
- Raw or undercooked forms of animal protein
- Other foods which we go into detail on in our upcoming masterclass
You can read more on salmonella symptoms and reducing your risk here.
Tips for avoiding food borne illnesses – Wash all fruit and vegetables, cook all meat properly and don’t use dirty or cracked eggs. Ensure you’re keeping up to date with food recalls, don’t consume anything outside the use by date and avoid high risk foods where possible.
Mercury is a heavy metal found in nature, which can accumulate in the body (Bernhoft, 2011). Humans are usually exposed through diet, therefore we want to be mindful of excess mercury we are ingesting. If exposed to high amounts, mercury can lead to harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems (Solan & Lindow, 2014). Although some mercury is unavoidable, it is best to be mindful and limit excess where we can, through practising food safety.
Although this sounds quite confronting, it takes an extremely high amount of mercury to cause these effects, so there is no need to be overly concerned. It’s just important to be aware of what is considered a ‘safe’ amount of higher risk foods during pregnancy.
There are specific fish (due to bioaccumulation, meaning it has stored and accumulated over time through tissues and the food chain) which contain potentially high levels of mercury that would be best to limit. You can read more about eating fish while pregnant and safe levels of intake here It is generally safe to consume low mercury fish (such as salmon) 2-3 times per week. We will delve into fish consumption, along with in-depth food safety practices in our upcoming Food Safety Masterclass, as there is still much to consider when it comes to fish consumption during pregnancy.
Now, there are quite a few opposing opinions when it comes to caffeine consumption during pregnancy and I’m sure all the caffeine drinkers are hanging out for an answer! (I would be too). So, can you drink caffeine during pregnancy and if so, how much?
The current guidelines show that overall, caffeine intake should be monitored and not exceed 1-2 cups per day, or 200 mg. To give you an idea, we have previously talked about caffeine consumption during conception and what 200 mg looks like here.
There is some more controversial research that states that caffeine consumption should be eliminated, however, what is worth noting is that these studies likely don’t account for confounding variables (i.e., a third variable in a study or situation affecting the outcome indirectly) such as, poor diet, smoking and more (Lamy et al., 2020).
How to keep food safe in pregnancy
There are a few important tips to help ensure you are practising food safety at home. Though the policies and procedures mentioned help safeguard us from a lot, there is plenty to be done at home to ensure our food is safe to consume We want you have the tools to really help reduce uncertainty around this topic, so as mentioned, we have put together a Food Safety Masterclass and eGuide that we invite you to sign up for if you’re interested or have questions. This guide will continue to provide support whenever you might be a little unsure.
In the meantime, some key tips for practising food safety:
- Always clean your hands and sanitise benches, utensils, and equipment
- Do not consume foods that have exceeded their used by date or have broken packaging
- All foods can be at risk of food borne illnesses, so food safety practices are extremely important
In saying this, we don’t want you to be fearful or strive for perfection as this mentality can become quite consuming. Just do your best and ask for help if you need it! However, if you have any questions or concerns, please book in to speak with your GP or a Dietitian.
Looking for expert dietitian to provide you all the latest information in Food Safety for Pregnancy in an easy to understand video masterclass training PLUS a downloadable eGuide answering all your questions? We want you to feel confident and calm about food in pregnancy whilst keeping you safe!
Click here to sign up for the masterclass (we are donating $10 AUD from every ticket to PANDA – Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia an amazing organisation that provides supportive services to help mothers-to-be with their mental health)