Can I Eat Ricotta Cheese When Pregnant?

Ricotta cheese is one of many soft cheeses that pregnant women should be wary of due to the potential of listeria contamination. Searching for a list of cheeses you can eat when pregnant may not have been something you considered when becoming a parent, but it's important to know the risks.

Ricotta cheese is used in pasta, pizza, and salad. Credit: Westend61/Westend61/GettyImages

Tips

Ricotta cheese is safe to consume during pregnancy, provided it is made from pasteurized milk; otherwise, it is safer to avoid it due to potential listeria contamination.

Ricotta Cheese: Facts

Ricotta cheese is traditionally made from goat's or sheep's milk, and is a curd cheese of Italian origin. It is created from the whey leftover from the production of other cheeses. Ricotta may be one of the more healthy cheeses available, because it is lower in salt and fat than many of its counterparts. It is predominantly used as an ingredient in pizzas and on top of pastas, as opposed to being consumed alone.

Most important, ricotta cheese when pregnant is a safe option, provided it is made with pasteurized milk. The process of pasteurization kills bacteria, including the potentially harmful listeria.

If the label doesn't say it has been made with pasteurized milk, however, then it is best to stay safe and avoid that ricotta cheese while pregnant.

Read more: Is Ricotta Cheese Healthy?

Why Is Soft Cheese Dangerous?

It all has to do with how the cheese is made in its initial stages. Soft cheeses are mold ripened, meaning they naturally contain bacteria. This is not something to be overly concerned about ordinarily, but creamy, soft cheese is a completely different matter.

There are numerous ongoing hormonal changes that occur in the body during pregnancy; because of this the immune system is weakened, meaning it is less able to fight off infection.

One especially dangerous infection is called listeriosis, and it is caused by listeria. This bacteria can be found in many soft cheeses, which is why they should be avoided.

The National Health Service of the United Kingdom advises the following as cheeses to avoid during pregnancy:

  • Brie
  • Camembert
  • Mold-ripened soft cheeses made with goat's milk
  • Danish blue
  • Gorgonzola
  • Roquefort

The American Pregnancy Association also advises the avoidance of Mexican style cheeses that contain queso blanco or queso franco, unless the labeling states that these cheeses have been made with pasteurized milk.

Tips

Soft cheeses such as brie, camembert, chevre, Danish blue, Gorgonzola and Roquefort are safe to consume during pregnancy only if they have been thoroughly cooked, meaning they are steaming hot all the way through. Do not consume them otherwise.

What About Hard Cheeses?

Hard cheeses are safer because they are not as watery as their soft counterparts, so there is less likelihood of bacteria thriving within them.

According to PregnancyBirth&Baby.org and the National Health Service, hard cheeses that are safe to eat throughout pregnancy include:

  • Cheddar
  • Parmesan
  • Edam
  • Emmental
  • Gouda
  • Gruyere
  • Jarlsberg
  • Stilton

Despite being mold-ripened, Stilton is generally safe to consume. Because it's a hard cheese, it is more resistant to bacteria contamination than soft cheeses.

Foods That May Contain Listeria

In addition to soft cheeses, listeria can contaminate other foods — so you should avoid these during pregnancy as well. The American Pregnancy Association lists some of these foods:

  • Deli meats: If eaten, similar to soft cheeses, they must be cooked thoroughly so they are steaming hot right to the center; this kills any potential bacteria including listeria.
  • Smoked seafood: Often labelled lox, nova style, kippered or jerky, it's only appropriate to consume if shelf-safe or canned, or if an ingredient of a cooked meal such as a casserole.
  • Unpasteurized milk: The pasteurization process kills bacteria, including listeria, and therefore removes the threat of contamination.
  • Pate: As with smoked seafood, canned or shelf-safe are fine, but otherwise pate should be avoided.

Read more: Fruits to Avoid When Pregnant

Listeriosis: Symptoms and Risks

Listeriosis can also be caught by consuming food that has been handled by someone with a listeria infection, so cleanliness is essential — especially in a household with someone who is pregnant.

The condition is only dangerous if it is caught by someone with a weakened immune system, such as pregnant women, those with diabetes, and anyone going through chemotherapy treatment or a similar procedure that weakens the immune system.

In healthy people and those who aren't pregnant, the condition usually passes on its own and can be treated at home. But it can cause serious damage to both the pregnant women and their unborn children.

According to the National Health Service, symptoms of listeriosis include:

  • A temperature of 100 Fahrenheit or higher
  • Aches and pains
  • Chills
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

In more severe cases of listeriosis, in which hospital care may be required, the following symptoms may occur:

  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Photosensitivity
  • Fits or seizures
  • Sudden confusion
  • Red and blotchy rash that does not fade when a glass is rolled over it (this could be a sign of meningitis caused by listeriosis, and requires urgent hospital attention)

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, pregnant women are 10 times more likely to suffer from a listeriosis infection than the general population.

This poses an enormous risk to the welfare of both mother and child. The dehydration associated with vomiting and diarrhea (both symptoms of listeriosis) can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth or preterm labor.

In addition, because listeria can pass through the placenta it can damage the baby in the womb. This can lead to severe infections of the blood and brain, lifelong health problems such as intellectual disability, paralysis, seizures, blindness and problems of the brain, heart and kidneys. In more serious cases, it may even result in death.

Reduce the Risk of Listeriosis

Luckily, there are many ways to reduce the likelihood of becoming infected by listeria during pregnancy. The more obvious steps include avoiding any of the listed foods (soft cheeses, smoked seafood, pate) either completely or only in the instance that they have been cooked thoroughly. But there are other steps that can be taken too.

Cleanliness is key, so pay extra attention to hygiene and house cleaning when you're pregnant or living with a pregnant person. Be sure to thoroughly clean kitchen surfaces before and after food preparation, and always wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before and after food prep, and after using the restroom or changing a diaper.

Warning

If you have any concerns regarding food you have recently consumed and its relation to your pregnancy, contact your healthcare professional for advice.

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