Can I Eat Processed Meats While Pregnant?

deli platter

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If you're a deli lover, there's nothing better than a sandwich piled high with your favorite cold cuts—turkey, ham, salami, pepperoni, you name it! If you're pregnant and craving that turkey BLT from your local sub shop, it's totally fine to swing by on your lunch break, right? Maybe not.

While there are so many amazing aspects of being pregnant, there's also a lot of uncertainty about what you can and shouldn't eat. As if carrying a tiny human wasn't enough, you spend nine months plagued by the question, "wait—can I eat that?" A quick ham and cheese sandwich might seem harmless enough, but during pregnancy, it's a little more complicated.

Deli meat and other processed foods like hot dogs, sausages, and bacon are, for the most part, off the table during pregnancy. (Pun unintended.) The general consensus is that it's best to avoid them until after the baby is born. That said, fear not! There are precautions you can take if do have to consume them. Here, we'll help you process everything you need to know about eating processed meats during pregnancy (pun very intended).

Eating Processed Meats During Pregnancy

Whether you're grilling hot dogs at a barbeque or browsing a tray of luncheon meats at a party, processed meats certainly aren't hard to find.

When asked if processed meats are safe to consume during pregnancy, Willow Jarosh, MS, RD, a registered dietitian-nutritionist and author of "Healthy, Happy Pregnancy Cookbook," has a two-part answer: "Lunchmeat [and other processed meats] can carry listeria," she says. "So the answer is no if you’re eating it straight from the package or putting it on a sandwich cold. [The answer is] yes if you’re cooking it to put in other things. It should really be cooked to steaming hot, which is about 165 degrees. "

Processed meats to avoid during pregnancy (unless they are heated to the proper temperature) include deli meat (turkey, ham, bologna, chicken, roast beef, prosciutto, and pepperoni), hot dogs, bacon, and sausages.

"If you heat [them] up in a skillet until [they're] steaming hot, that should kill the bacteria," says Jarosh.

Every pregnancy is different. Be sure to consult with a healthcare provider about your circumstances if you have any questions about eating processed meats while pregnant.

Is it Safe for Baby?

Because of the risk of listeria contamination, processed meats are not considered safe for unborn children.

The FDA defines listeria as a harmful bacterium that can be found in refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy (such as unpasteurized milk or foods made with unpasteurized milk.) If listeria is consumed, it can cause listeriosis, a serious illness to a mother-to-be or their unborn baby. Pregnant women are about 10 times more likely to get listeriosis than other healthy adults and make up an estimated 1/6 of all cases.

"Listeria can cause a significant gastrointestinal infection with vomiting and diarrhea," explains Dr. Andrea Chisholm, MD, a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist. "[It] is one of the few infectious agents that can cross the placenta and cause an infection in the baby or cause a miscarriage." Jarosh adds, "Even if you don't feel particularly sick, the baby could still become sick."

Why You Should Not Eat Processed Meats While Pregnant

It's vital to consume foods that aid in the healthy development of your baby, and, unfortunately, processed meats don't serve much of a purpose. "In general, deli and processed meats are not the healthiest protein choice in pregnancy," states Dr. Chisholm.

Moreover, a 2021 global study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in which researchers followed 134,297 participants for nearly a decade, found that consumption of 50 grams or more of processed meat a week was associated with a 46% higher risk of cardiovascular disease and a 51% higher risk of death than those who avoided processed meat.

Add the increased risk of listeria for pregnant women, and it's fairly obvious that the benefits of processed meats during pregnancy are virtually nonexistent.

Risks of Processed Meats While Pregnant

Jarosh explains that, in her experience, many people think of precooked foods as safer options since they're already cooked—but that's not always the case. The main culprit? Cross-contamination.

"[Listeria] contamination is happening after it’s cooked at the factory, and before it’s packaged," she says. So, although the food you purchase is already cooked, the way it's handled afterward has the potential to cause contamination.

Here's the kicker: listeria is able to grow in normal refrigeration temperatures, making other foods in your fridge susceptible to cross-contamination as well. Jarosh explains that the juice from sausages, deli meat, and other processed foods have the potential to leak onto other items, which can spread bacteria. While most of us are diligent about keeping raw meats like chicken and ground beef away from other foods, we don't often think about that pack of hot dogs.

To reduce your risk of listeriosis during pregnancy, the best actions you can take are to cook any processed meat until it's steaming hot (165 degrees F) in a skillet, oven, or microwave (including deli meat, precooked chicken/bacon, etc.), ensure cutting boards are thoroughly cleaned, and keep your refrigerator at 40 degrees or below to slow the spread of bacteria.

When Can I Resume Eating Processed Meats?

Good news! There's no need to worry about processed meats after the baby arrives (even if you decide to breastfeed). Of course, the risk of listeria is always there, but for healthy adults, it's not as likely to be as serious as it is for those who are pregnant. As long as you take safety precautions throughout your pregnancy, you can celebrate in the delivery room with that turkey sub you've missed so much.

In addition to the risk of listeria, the World Health Organization has classified processed meats as a group 1 carcinogen, meaning there is "sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer." While the occasional hotdog or BLT is likely to be okay, consider discussing any processed meat consumption with a healthcare provider.

Pregnancy Safe Alternatives

Since processed meats lack the nutrition (and safety) you need during pregnancy, it's best to consider other food options. Here are some pregnancy-safe alternatives to processed meats.

Freshly Roasted Meats

If you're still in the mood for something from the deli, Dr. Chrisholm recommends sticking to the fresher options. "A healthier and safer option from the deli counter would be in-house freshly roasted turkey, chicken, or roast beef," she says. It's a much safer way to get the protein you and your baby need.

A rotisserie chicken is also an option, but Jarosh recommends reheating it to steaming hot after you get it home, especially if it was put in the cold section.

Low-Mercury Fish

Fish that are low in mercury contain a number of vital nutrients needed during pregnancy, including omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamins, and iron. The best options include salmon, tilapia, shrimp, canned tuna (light), cod, and catfish.

Try it pan-fried, oven-baked, or in a salad. (Just make sure it's fully cooked!) The fish to avoid include tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, swordfish, shark, and king mackerel. And, Albacore tuna should also be limited to 6 ounces per week.

Egg Salad Sandwich

Swap processed meats for egg salad to get your sandwich fix! Eggs are another great option for protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins A and D. The key is to ensure they are fully cooked since raw or undercooked eggs have the potential to cause salmonella. Tips from the FDA include cooking eggs until the yolks and whites are firm and ensuring you only consume those that are pasteurized.

You should also watch out for certain homemade dressings and sauces made with raw eggs, including Caesar dressings, mayonnaise, and Hollandaise sauces. (Commercial mayonnaise and dressings contain pasteurized eggs that are safe to eat.)

A Word From Verywell

Cross-contamination can occur without you even realizing it, so it's best to stay vigilant and aware of the foods you're consuming during pregnancy. Processed meats should be avoided as much as possible, but there's no need to agonize over accidentally eating some. "Listeria is relatively rare," says Jarosh. "Breathe, monitor how you’re feeling, and go to the doctor if you think you’re getting sick. Don’t beat yourself up about it and go forward with your eating." 

Of course, the best thing you can do is speak with an OBGYN, midwife, or healthcare provider for advice about eating processed meats during your pregnancy.

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Article Sources
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  2. Iqbal R, Dehghan M, Mente A, et al. Associations of unprocessed and processed meat intake with mortality and cardiovascular disease in 21 countries [Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (Pure) Study]: a prospective cohort study. Am J Clin Nutr. Published online March 31, 2021:nqaa448 .doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqaa448

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  6. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Dairy and Eggs from Food Safety for Moms to Be. Updated September 2018.