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You’ve already put down the glass of wine now that you’re pregnant to avoid the harmful effects of alcohol on your developing baby. Do you have to turn down the cheese plate, too?
Why Soft Cheese Can Be Harmful While Pregnant
Cheese made from raw (i.e., unpasteurized) milk may contain Listeria bacteria. Listeriosis, an infection caused by this bacteria, can have serious or even deadly effects on the fetus. Listeriosis is rare, but because your immune system is somewhat suppressed during pregnancy, you’re more susceptible to it. Symptoms are often similar to a flu, but the baby may experience a more severe case than you do. You’re even at a higher risk of miscarriage or stillbirth if you contract listeriosis.
Expectant parents in the Hispanic/Latinx community are at a higher risk of encountering Listeria bacteria, according to the CDC. Unpasteurized queso fresco, queso blanco, cotija, and more can carry the bacteria.
Other types of soft cheese include:
- Queso blando
- Queso ranchero
Your local farmers’ market cheese-seller may also offer raw milk cheeses. If you don’t see a label that indicates the cheese was made with pasteurized milk, steer clear during pregnancy.
Reduce Risk and Enjoy Your Cheese
Fortunately, supermarkets in the U.S. tend to offer a wide selection of pregnancy-friendly cheeses and snacks. Follow these tips to make the healthiest choice:
- Enjoy hard cheeses. Cheddar, Swiss, Gouda, Manchego, and Pecorino are a few delicious options. Hard cheeses, even if they were made with unpasteurized milk, are generally considered safe to eat while pregnant.
- Read labels for pasteurized soft cheese. The good news for Brie-lovers is that some soft cheeses are made with pasteurized milk. The pasteurization process kills Listeria bacteria, so the risk of listeriosis is very small if you eat cheese from pasteurized milk, even soft cheeses. Read the labels carefully to make sure the cheese was pasteurized.
- Look for packaging. Ricotta, cottage cheese, cream cheese, mascarpone, and others don’t tend to make the list of cheeses to avoid while pregnant. Why? They’re almost always pasteurized. Again, the moisture of the cheese isn’t the issue, but whether the milk was heated enough to kill harmful bacteria before the cheese was made. Check the label to be sure, but pre-packaged cheeses and similar dairy is usually safe.
- Avoid other sources of Listeria. Deli meats, uncooked hot dogs, and raw milk can have Listeria bacteria, and can transfer the bacteria to other products. A deli counter worker who uses the same utensils or gloves to handle cold cuts, deli salads, and cheeses may unwittingly cross-contaminate foods with harmful bacteria. Be careful about ordering cheese at the deli, even if it’s a hard cheese, to avoid this cross-contamination.
- Avoid imported cheese. The packaged, imported queso fresco was prepared in another country that may have different standards regarding pasteurization. Even if it’s less authentic, an American-made variety may be a safer choice until the baby is born.
What If I’m Traveling?
If you’ve planned a pre-baby vacation to France, Spain, Italy, or Mexico, it’s got to sting to hear you can’t enjoy the local cheeses and cured meats! Unfortunately, it’s going to be challenging to find pasteurized options. Your safest bet is to focus on the local delicacies you can eat safely and save the prosciutto and blue cheese and another visit.
Sitting down to a hot meal is another way to enjoy tasty, pregnancy-safe meals. Cooking food until it’s steaming hot (about 160 degrees Fahrenheit) kills Listeria bacteria. The cured chorizo sizzling in a paella pan is just fine.
As always, your doctor or OBGYN can advise you on how to navigate safe food choices, both at home and abroad.