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Practicing food safety during pregnancy doesn’t mean eliminating your favorites, professor explains

Many changes occur for women during pregnancy, including new dietary considerations and intense cravings. Yaohua “Betty” Feng, associate professor of food science, says that while some foods present a higher risk for illness during this time, there are still ways women can enjoy their favorites safely. 

The hormonal changes to a woman’s body during pregnancy can provide resilience, but behind that boost in strength lies a compromised immune system. Feng explains this naturally occurring change allows the immune system to accept carrying the fetus, while also causing a weakened state for fighting foodborne bacteria. Pathogens also pose a risk to unborn babies with underdeveloped immune systems. 

“I like to think of pregnancy as sort of an apprenticeship for taking care of a newborn. When you’re pregnant, you feel like some of these precautions are like a chore. But after nine months, these simple things become routine,” Feng explains. “Children under the age of five are more susceptible to food-borne illnesses, so these habits you’ve formed aren’t just keeping you safe, they’re keeping your children safe as well.” 

While pregnancy literature advises avoiding deli meat, including ham and salami, it may not always explain why. Feng said deli meat is at high risk for listeria contamination. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to getting listeriosis, which is the disease caused by this bacterium. Heating deli meats until steamy will kill off potential bacteria, allowing for safe consumption. 

As a sushi lover herself, Feng said she understands the disappointment many women feel when told they should avoid it during pregnancy. However, there are safer ways the beloved rice rolls can be enjoyed. 

“Raw fish should be avoided because it has a high risk for listeria contamination. Your sushi chef wouldn’t be very happy if you asked them to heat all the raw fish in your sushi rolls,” Feng explained. “However, it does not hurt if you make some veggie rolls at home with rice and sliced vegetables, like cucumber or avocado.” 

Feng offers these "four C’s” of food safety for moms-to-be: 

  • Clean: Always wash your hands with soap before handling food, including after touching your phone. 
  • Cook: Use a food thermometer to make sure the meat and eggs are cooked thoroughly to food-safe temperatures. Eggs and all ground meats must be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit; poultry and other fowl to 165 degrees Fahrenheit; and fresh meat steaks, chops and roasts to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Chill: Keep a thermometer in your refrigerator to ensure it is always at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Choose: Avoid meat, egg and milk when served raw. Read restaurant menus carefully to ensure raw ingredients are not included in a dish before ordering or consuming.  

For more tips on food safety and general health information, visit Feng’s Lab on Facebook and Instagram

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