Is Vodka Sauce Safe for Pregnant Women?

Tagliatelle with various sauces
Pasta dishes can contain more alcohol than you think. (Image: Eising/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Medical authorities agree that drinking an excessive amount of alcohol is not safe for pregnant women because it puts the fetus at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome and other health problems. Whether consuming small amounts of alcohol poses risks remains a matter of contention. Penne with vodka sauce contains a substantial amount of alcohol, however, and avoiding it is the safest course. Check with your health-care provider before consuming alcohol while pregnant, even the small amounts of alcohol in sauces and desserts.

Alcohol and Pregnancy

Fetal alcohol syndrome's effects include birth defects, mental retardation, poor growth and behavioral problems. Pregnant women who have seven or more alcoholic drinks per week or who binge drink -- that is, have four or more drinks at a sitting -- increase their baby's risk. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy may also contribute to miscarriage or stillbirth. It's unknown what amount of alcohol consumption is safe, so U.S. public health institutions recommend that pregnant women avoid alcohol completely.

Controversy

Some obstetricians recommend that pregnant women exercise complete abstinence, while others feel that small, infrequent servings of alcohol -- such as an occasional glass of wine or beer -- are harmless. A 2009 research study published in the "Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health" found light drinking to be benign. Children born to mothers who drank one or two alcoholic drinks per week during pregnancy performed better on cognitive tests and had fewer behavior problems than children whose mothers were abstinent. Whether to drink lightly or to drink not at all while pregnant is a personal decision, and one you should make with the advice of your own obstetrician.

Vodka Sauce

A common recipe for penne with vodka sauce contains 8 oz. of vodka and serves six. Each serving of sauce, prior to simmering, contains 1.34 oz. of vodka. The sauce simmers for 20 minutes, long enough for at least 40 percent of the alcohol to burn off in cooking, according to Shirley Perryman, a food science specialist at Colorado State University. This leaves 0.84 oz. of vodka per finished serving. A standard drink of distilled spirits is 1 1/2 oz., so a serving of penne vodka contains more than half a drink's worth of vodka.

Recommendations

Avoid penne with vodka sauce while pregnant. Half a drink of spirits is a fair amount of alcohol, and some preparations could contain even larger amounts vodka per serving. If the cook simmers the sauce for a short period, uses a heavy hand with the vodka or dishes up large servings, you could ingest more than .84 ounces of spirits. Because the consequences of consuming an excessive amount of alcohol while pregnant are potentially dire, it's not worth the risk. Some cooked dishes contain such small amounts of alcohol that the risks are negligible. For instance, a long-simmered sauce with a splash of cooking wine should not be of concern. Consult your physician to determine exactly where to draw the line.

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