Is Smoked Food OK When Pregnant? What Science Says


pregnant belly

If you just found out that you are pregnant (congratulations!), you must be wondering what is safe for you and your baby and what you should avoid. Apart from the do’s and don’ts – and in this case, what types of food are safe to eat or what to avoid – you have to remember to live in the moment and enjoy the experience. But for now, let’s get down to those do’s and don’ts. 

Smoked food – especially when cold-smoked – will be safe to consume during pregnancy when heated up to at least 165° Fahrenheit. Certain smoked foods might not be fully cooked (depending on the method), and the additional heating process kills harmful bacteria, such as listeria. 

Pregnancy takes a toll on your body, affecting your immune system, which means you have to be a little more careful than before. Expecting your bundle of joy does not mean that you have to live in a bubble, very far from it. However, there are a few things to know about smoked foods and what is best avoided. 

Is smoked food OK when pregnant? 

The best way to determine if smoked food is OK while you are pregnant is to go through the various dangers, foods, and methods one by one. When you are concerned about your baby’s health, it is best to play it safe and get as much information as possible. 

Listeria

Because it is so dangerous to you and your baby, we’ll start with listeria and how to make sure you don’t expose yourself and, by extension, your baby to this harmful bacterium. Pregnant women and their unborn babies are highly susceptible to contract listeriosis. When the bacterium travels into your blood, you can get extremely ill; this is known as listeriosis.

The listeria bacterium can survive in cold temperatures; this means that it can continue to grow even when the contaminated product is refrigerated. According to the CDC, a crucial thing to remember is that freezing does stop listeria from increasing, but it does not kill the bacteria

Possible exposure to listeria includes (but are not limited to): 

By eating ready-to-eat meats, poultry, seafood, and dairy products that are contaminated with L. monocytogenes. You can also get listeriosis by eating contaminated foods processed or packaged in unsanitary conditions or by eating fruits and vegetables that are contaminated from the soil or from manure used as fertilizer.

If you are worried that the food you have eaten may have been contaminated by L. monocytogenes, keep an eye out for flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, body aches, diarrhea, and headaches. Some other symptoms include neck stiffness, confusion, and loss of balance. Keep in mind that these symptoms can take days and even weeks to present. So be sure not to confuse them with a bad case of the flu. 

Listeriosis can be life-threatening and should be treated by medical professionals immediately. Listeria affects not only the mother but also her unborn baby and can result in premature birth, babies being born underweight, meningitis, and even miscarriages

Cold smoking vs. hot smoking (What is the difference?) 

  • Hot smoked food is usually fully cooked (between 125° F and 175° F); some examples are ribs or whole chicken. However, you will need to make sure that it was heated to a certain degree; just because it was cooked does not mean all the bacteria has died. If the smoker was only heated to 140° F, this might not be safe for you to eat yet. To make it “pregnancy safe”, it needs to reach a temperature of at least 165° F. Use a good quality meat thermometer to ensure the meat is cooked above 165° F. 

Here is a list of examples of hot smoked meats that are save during pregnancy – when in doubt, heat it up: 

  • Chicken 
  • Duck
  • Ham 
  • Turkey
  • Pork

Cold smoking does not cook the food all the way (between 68° F and 85° F); this process is more for enhancing flavor than actually cooking the meat. It is not always clear what method was used, and if you cannot find out, just heat any smoked food to eliminate any possible risk.  Fish is usually smoked using this method, some other meats as well, but it’s not as common. 

Is there a difference between smoked meats and cured meats?

Cured meats are preserved with salt; this process eliminates the harmful bacteria (or, more accurately, avoids the buildup of harmful bacteria). Curing does not always involve cooking (for example, cold-cured meats such as salami). Some might suggest freezing the meat might kill harmful bacteria, but according to DayMark Safety Systems, this does not kill bacteria; as the meat thaws, the germs and bacteria will feed off the moisture and have the same risk as before.

Flame-grilled meat vs. barbecue smokers

Flame-grilling is fast cooking over open fires (coals, wood, or gas), typically hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken, or kebabs. Flame-grilling should not be confused with pan-searing, oven-grilled, or barbecue. Pan-searing, sometimes called grilling, is where the meat is cooked in a hot pan. Oven-grilling is the same as baking, and with barbeques, the meat cooks on a lower heat and longer. 

According to PubMed, the fat drippings which cause those little sizzling flames to erupt can result in growth disruption of babies – especially soon-to-be mothers in their third trimester.  This seemingly innocent little flame that soon crackles away, causes a chemical reaction that emits Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (pretty scary words for the fun of grilling). PAH settles on the surface of the meat. Note that this has not been found in smoked meat or barbeque, “when food is in direct contact with flame, pyrolysis of fats in the meat and smoke of hot charcoal generate great amounts of PAHs….”

Of course, this does not mean you should avoid it entirely for nine months; as with most things, moderation is key. However, don’t have grilled foods every other day; limit cook-outs for special occasions. 

Smoked Fish

Low mercury fish is one of the healthiest options for protein, fats, and vitamins, especially for pregnant or breastfeeding women. However, you should be very careful with smoked fish – as we mentioned earlier, fish is usually cold-smoked – always heat smoked fish (and avoid sushi). 

As a low mercury fish, salmon can be cold-smoked at a temperature of 80° Fahrenheit; by now, we know this is not safe. Look out for smoked salmon pate or spreads; since heating the spread may be unpalatable, avoid it entirely. Salmon can also be hot-smoked, which usually cooks the fish, but if you are unsure at what temperature it was smoked, follow the golden rule.  Undercooked fish poses potential exposure to listeria and various other viral and parasitic infections and can harm you and your unborn baby. 

Deli meats

Some deli meats are smoked (cold or hot), cured, or cooked. You’ll have to read the label carefully and use your judgment when the craving hits. Keep in mind that deli meats are mainly processed; a little is fine, but don’t have deli meats too often. Shreeja Pillai (MSc) wrote an article for Mom Junction to outline which deli meats are safe during pregnancy and which to avoid. 

Pillai suggests that turkey (or chicken) breast, sliced ham, and grilled pork slices are safe to consume during pregnancy. Typically, these meats, whether smoked or cooked, are ready to eat and possess a minor risk of still being undercooked or raw. To avoid possible exposure to salmonella, reheat the chicken before you make that chicken-mayo sandwich. 

Some examples of cold-cured or cold-smoked meats are hot dogs, bologna, and sausages. Others include chorizo, pancetta, prosciutto, pepperoni, mortadella, salami, beef pastrami, and roast beef. The matter may seem confusing as some “safe” meats are listed here; that is because cooking methods are not always evident

Shreeja advised her readers to pick freshly cooked sliced meats (organic if you can) and avoid cured meats because the high sodium content can cause hypertension. Never eat any leftover meat that has not been stored correctly or older than three days

Apart from listeria, deli meats can affect your blood pressure (the use of salt), may cause heart problems (saturated fat), can lead to obesity (high calories). Deli meats are processed, this means it is sometimes packed with preservatives (such as nitrates) during the curing process. Nitrates are known for being carcinogenic (potentially causes cancer). 

What science says

After talking to Professor Barbara Rasco at Washington State University (School of Food Science), Mary Rothschild wrote an in-depth article on listeria in smoked salmon and outlined the associated risk of exposure to the bacterium. We know that people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women can become terribly ill when exposed to listeria. However, according to the professor, smoked fish is safe mainly because vulnerable people avoid eating it – perhaps because they are aware of how susceptible they are to listeriosis. 

Additionally, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is not very tolerant of even low levels of listeria and usually demands a recall of the products irrespective if it caused illness or not. According to the FDA, food to look out for which may contain the bacterium are:

  • soft cheese
  • unpasteurized dairy
  • cold cuts, lunch meat, and deli meat
  • hot dogs
  • smoked fish
  • meat spreads
  • harvest from contaminated soil 

In an article approved by Dr. Krish Tangella, DoveMed stated that research found a risk of babies born underweight to moms who ate smoked meat during the third trimester. They advise against eating smoked and cold meats while expecting and to heat smoked foods thoroughly before eating. 

Does a microwave kill the bacteria?

Yes, but when you do it right. Popping it in the microwave for thirty seconds might not be enough to kill bacteria. Microwaves are known for uneven heating; you have to make sure that the food is heated all the way through before you eat it. The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that food should reach a temperature of at least 70° Celsius (158° F). 

To minimise the risk of survival of L monocytogenes and other non-sporing, food-poisoning bacteria instructions for the microwave cooking of poultry and for the reheating of pre-cooked, chilled foods should ensure that a temperature of at least 70° C is reached throughout.

The link between frequently eating smoked food and cancer

An article on Pubmed stated there might be a link between regularly eating smoked foods and increased risk of cancer. Occasionally eating smoked meat seems to be safe enough, but when it makes up a significant portion of your daily protein intake, it might be a good idea to cut back on the smoked ham and replace it with cooked ham. 

The study found that in districts of Hungary where they consume a lot of home-smoked meats, the percentage of stomach cancer (in comparison to other cancers) is around 47 percent as opposed the 29.9 percent in Hungary as a whole. It doesn’t mean you should never eat smoked meats but don’t eat it every day

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, control your intake of smoked or proceed foods while you are pregnant or breastfeeding, as research has indicated that these foods are not particularly healthy and may cause an increased risk of cancer. It might be a good idea to limit consumption in general. 

Other foods to avoid when you are expecting 

Your next thought is probably what else you should avoid while expecting; Adda Bjarnadottir, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, provided some very insightful information on what foods should be limited or avoided during your pregnancy. 

Foods to consume in strict moderation

  • Organ meat
    While packed with much of the good stuff such as iron, vitamins B12 and A, it is not recommended to get too much animal-based vitamin A during pregnancy. It can cause malformations in babies or cause miscarriages. However, this does not mean you should avoid animal-based vitamin A altogether; just keep an eye on it and limit it to only a few ounces a week. 
  • Caffeine
    You might want to jump on the decaf train, but there is no proof that decaffeinated coffee or tea might be any safer to consume. To be safe, stick to one or two cups of coffee a day. 
    Too much caffeine can affect healthy fetal growth, and your baby might be born underweight. To read more about decaffeinated drinks, check out this article.
  • Processed junk foods
    The high fat content found in junk food is good for no one, much less pregnant women. You need food rich in nutrients to keep you fit as a fiddle and facilitate your baby’s healthy development. 
    Cravings are probably your worst enemy, so if you have a burger and fries this week, don’t panic; just don’t eat processed foods all week long. Here is a great article to help you understand what your body needs when you crave certain foods.

Foods to avoid completely 

  • High mercury fish (not all fish have high mercury levels)
    You should avoid high mercury fish while you are pregnant and after delivery if you breastfeed. Mercury is toxic and causes damage to your immune and nervous systems, as well as your kidneys. 
  • Undercooked or raw fish
    You risk exposure to norovirus, Vibrio, salmonella, and listeria. These harmful infections can lead to severe consequences for you and your baby; this means no sushi while pregnant; you can indulge once more once your baby is born. 
  • Undercooked, raw, and processed meat
    The same essential warning applies here as undercooked or raw fish; always make sure to rinse your fruits and vegetables, and that food is thoroughly cooked

Conclusion

Luckily, there are more you can eat than you have to avoid during pregnancy. You should avoid raw or undercooked food; if it cannot be reheated, don’t eat it. Ensure you and your baby are safe simply follow the golden rule: reheat cold food or cook any smoked food to kill any possible bacteria.

William Johnson

Will has loved smoking food in his free time for the last few years. Each major holiday or off-weekend, Will spends days testing and prepping new recipes for perfection.

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