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Extract from Food Standards Agency - expert guide


Ask an expert questions about pregnancy

  • Soya, phytoestrogens and pregnancy
  • Fish during pregnancy
  • Spicy food during pregnancy
  • Mayonnaise and pregnancy
  • Smoked salmon and pregnancy
  • Cooked cheese in pregnancy
  • Pregnancy and unpasteurised milk products
  • Shellfish and pregnancy
  • Runny cheese and pregnancy
  • Folic acid and conception
    Q&A I’ve heard that soya contains phytoestrogens. What are they and should I avoid eating soya products during pregnancy?
    Phytoestrogens are compounds found naturally in some plants, including soya. They may mimic or block the action of the human hormone, oestrogen. But they have a much weaker effect in the body than oestrogen.

    Pregnant women don’t need to avoid soya products if they’re eaten as part of a healthy balanced diet. Some people have raised concerns that pregnant women who eat soya might affect the future fertility of their babies.

    However, these concerns are based on studies in rats and mice, and it’s difficult to assess what the results mean for humans. In these studies the animals had been given much higher levels of phytoestrogens than in a normal human diet containing some soya products. There haven’t been any reports of problems in countries such as Japan and China, where the traditional diet includes soya.

    Q&A I’ve heard that pregnant women should avoid some types of fish. Why is this?
    Some types of fish contain more mercury than others. The amount of mercury we get from food isn’t harmful for most people, but if a woman takes in high levels of mercury during pregnancy this can affect her baby’s developing nervous system.

    In fact, if a woman is pregnant, breastfeeding, or intending to become pregnant in the next year, she should avoid eating shark, swordfish and marlin. She should also limit the amount of tuna she eats to no more than one tuna steak (weighing about 140g when cooked or 170g raw) or two medium-size cans of tuna a week (with a drained weight of about 140g per can). This means about six rounds of tuna sandwiches or three tuna salads.

    Tuna doesn’t contain as much mercury as shark, swordfish and marlin, but it contains more than fish such as cod, haddock, plaice and salmon.

    Although it’s important to follow the advice about shark, swordfish, marlin and tuna, there’s no problem with eating most types of fish during pregnancy, as part of a healthy balanced diet.

    Fish is an excellent source of protein and it contains essential vitamins and minerals. Oily fish, such as sardines, mackerel, trout and salmon (fresh or canned) are rich in essential long-chain omega 3 fatty acids, which can help prevent heart disease. We should all aim to eat at least two servings of fish a week, including one of oily fish.

    Q&A I like eating spicy food like curry and chilli. Is this food healthy during pregnancy?
    It's fine to eat spicy foods while you're pregnant, as long as you feel OK while you’re eating them.

    While you're pregnant, you should eat a healthy balanced diet, to make sure that you get enough energy and nutrients for your baby to grow and develop, and for your body to cope with the changes taking place.

    Try to eat plenty of foods containing iron, to make sure you are getting enough of this important mineral. Good sources of iron include red meat, pulses, bread, green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals. Try to have some food or drink containing vitamin C, such as a glass of fruit juice, at the same time as an iron-rich meal, because this will help your body absorb the iron.

    Although liver contains lots of iron, you should avoid eating it while you’re pregnant because it contains high levels of vitamin A, which could harm your baby if you have too much.

    You should also take a 400 microgram (mcg) folic acid supplement each day until at least the 12th week of your pregnancy. And try to include foods containing folic acid in your diet, such as green vegetables and brown rice, bread and fortified breakfast cereals. Folic acid has been shown to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in the unborn baby, such as spina bifida.

    While you’re pregnant, you should avoid eating the following things:

    • soft mould-ripened cheeses, such as Camembert and Brie, and blue-veined cheeses
    • any type of pâté
    • any food that isn’t properly cooked, especially undercooked meat and raw or undercooked eggs (always make sure that food is piping hot all the way through before you eat it)
    • shark, swordfish or marlin
    Q&A I am nearly 18 weeks pregnant and would like to know if shop-bought mayonnaise is safe to eat. I know to avoid home-made mayo but don't know if there is a difference with commercial products.
    Shop-bought mayonnaise is generally made from pasteurised egg and therefore should be safe for pregnant women to eat, but make sure you follow the storage instructions on the jar.

    Pregnant women are advised to avoid home-made mayonnaise because it can contain raw unpasteurised egg and so there’s a potential risk of salmonella. Occasionally you might see fresh mayonnaise in shops. It will be kept in the chilled section and have a close ‘Use by’ date. Unless you can check that it doesn't contain raw egg, it would be best to avoid this during pregnancy.

    Q&A Is it safe to eat cold meats and smoked salmon when I’m pregnant?
    Some countries advise pregnant women not to eat cold meats or smoked fish because of the risk of listeria. In the UK, we don’t advise women to avoid these products, because the risk is very low. The risk of listeria is much higher with soft mould-ripened cheeses (such as Brie and Camembert) or pâté, which you shouldn’t eat during pregnancy. However, if you are concerned, you might also choose to avoid cold meats and smoked fish while you are pregnant.
    Q&A I understand that pregnant women are advised not to eat soft ripened cheeses such as Brie and Camembert, and blue-veined cheeses, but are these types of cheese safe to eat if cooked, e.g. on a pizza or in a cheese sauce?
    Pregnant women are advised against eating these types of cheese because of the risk of listeria. However, thorough cooking should kill any listeria, so it should be safe to eat food containing soft mould-ripened or blue-veined cheeses, provided it has been properly cooked and is piping hot all the way through.
    Q&A Are hard cheeses made from unpasteurised milk such as Parmesan and Gruyere safe in pregnancy?
    The scientific literature has shown that Listeria is present in very low numbers (less than 1 bacterium per gram of cheese) in these types of cheeses and they are therefore not considered a risk to health during pregnancy.
    Q&A Should I avoid eating shellfish while I’m pregnant?
    You should avoid oysters and other shellfish while you’re pregnant, unless they are part of a hot meal and have been thoroughly cooked. This is because, when they are raw, these types of seafood might be contaminated with harmful bacteria and viruses. These are usually killed by proper cooking.

    It’s unusual for shellfish to contain listeria, a type of food poisoning bacteria that can harm unborn babies. Salmonella and campylobacter (the most common foodborne illnesses) might make you ill, but it’s unlikely that they will have any direct effects on your baby.

    If you’re concerned about eating shellfish, you might choose to avoid them when you’re pregnant.

    Q&A Why can't you eat runny cheeses when you're pregnant?
    In order to avoid the risk of listeriosis pregnant women are advised to avoid eating ripened soft cheeses of the Brie, Camembert and blue-veined types, whether pasteurised or unpasteurised.

    This is because ripened soft cheeses are less acidic and contain more moisture than hard cheeses and are therefore more inclined to allow growth of undesirable bacteria such as Listeria, which may harm your unborn child.

    You can enjoy hard cheeses such as Cheddar and Cheshire. Cottage cheese, processed cheese and cheese spreads can all be safely eaten during pregnancy.

    Q&A How long should a woman be taking folic acid supplements before trying to conceive?
    There isn't a recommended length of time before conception that women should start taking folic acid supplements. The important thing is for women to make sure that they consume adequate amounts of folate (the natural form of folic acid) – from the foods they eat, and take a daily folic acid supplement (400mcg) – from before they conceive until the 12th week of pregnancy. It's a good idea for women of childbearing age to follow this advice if there's a possibility of an unplanned pregnancy.

    Folate helps to reduce the risk of babies developing neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. Women who have already had a child with a neural tube defect should consult their GP for individual advice.

    Brussels sprouts, asparagus, black-eyed beans, spinach and kale are rich sources of folate. Broccoli, spring greens, cabbage, cauliflower, iceberg lettuce, parsnips and oranges also contain significant amounts, but folate is destroyed easily when cooked and tends to be lost in the water used for boiling. You can increase your intake of folic acid by eating foods that are fortified with it, for example some breakfast cereals.


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