I’ve never been happier than the day I found out I was pregnant. Still, when my doctor issued a moratorium on soft cheese, I was barely able to make it out of his office before I started to cry.
Yes, perching on the edge of a flowerbed on 83rd Street while blubbering over my inability to eat my favorite cheeses seems somewhat dramatic in hindsight. I’ll give you that. In my defense, my hormones were completely out of whack and I had just been thrown a major curveball.
“But the FDA says it’s ok,” I kept repeating as Dave patted my back and kindly tried not to look at his watch.
The concern over cheese during pregnancy is due to possible contamination by listeria, a type of bacteria that may be found in refrigerated deli meats or foods made with unpasteurized milk. Outbreaks of listeriosis are rare. Nationwide, only 1,651 cases were reported between 2009 and 2011, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet, pregnant women are advised to be vigilant in avoiding potentially contaminated foods because listeria can have devastating effects on a fetus, including miscarriage, stillbirth, mental retardation or paralysis. The scariest part is that in most cases, people who become infected never feel sick. If they do, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear.
To prevent an infection, the Food and Drug Administration advises pregnant women not to eat soft cheeses like feta, brie and camembert, blue-veined cheeses, or queso blanco, queso fresco, or panela, unless they’re made with milk that has been pasteurized, a process that uses heat to kill harmful bacteria.
My doctor is even more conservative, banning all soft cheeses even if they are pasteurized. Mold-ripened and blue-veined cheeses are moister and less acidic than harder, aged cheeses, providing an ideal environment for listeria to grow if the cheese is contaminated after the pasteurization process, for instance, during aging or shipping. My doctor doesn’t want his patients to take the risk, a stance which I do understand but which pains me nonetheless.
Yet, he and the FDA are in total agreement when it comes to cheeses made with unpasteurized, or raw, milk — they are deemed completely off limits for pregnant women.
While there’s a common misconception that all cheese made in the U.S. is pasteurized, in fact, many artisan and farmstead cheeses are made with raw milk. Cheesemakers often argue that raw milk produces a more complex cheese with more intense flavor than pasteurized varieties. I tend to agree. The FDA simply requires that cheese made with raw milk be aged for at least 60 days before it is considered safe to eat.
Several times throughout the course of my pregnancy, I’ve received a lecture when approaching a cheese counter with a request for a sample of something both hard and pasteurized. Cheesemongers often believe that raw milk cheeses have been aged long enough that the acids and salt in the cheese naturally kill any harmful bacteria like listeria. They’re not alone. The U.K.’s health safety agency deems hard cheeses like cheddar, emmental, gouda, gruyere, parmesan and stilton as completely safe for pregnant women even if they are unpasteurized.
So, where does all of this conflicting information leave a pregnant woman? Completely confused.
If left to my own devices, I would probably eat every cheese I wanted to. After all, I’ve been eating a truly massive amount of soft and raw cheese for well over a decade and have never contracted listeria. But I’m not a medical professional, so I’m going to play it safe and listen to someone who is.
When I get a hankering for soft cheese that just won’t go away, I make a baked camembert or goat cheese (those recipes will be posted soon). Heating the cheese till it steams eliminates the risk of bacteria and satisfies my cravings.
My advice to pregnant women is to ask your doctor what he or she feels comfortable with you eating. Then completely ignore the well-meaning friends, family, cheesemongers or waiters who want to share their opinions or who inevitably point out that pregnant French women have been eating all sorts of cheese for centuries.
A side note: I am thrilled to say that I have a mere six weeks to go before I have both a daughter and free rein to eat whatever gooey, stinky, raw cheese I want. (Of course, I already have a list of cheese that I expect my sister to bring straight to the hospital when I give birth.)
Until then, I’ll mainly be profiling the hard, pasteurized cheeses allowed by my doctor. Any raw or soft cheese that I’ve written about up until this point is one that I sampled pre-pregnancy. I’ve kept a very detailed cheese-tasting diary for quite some time and have relied upon that for any descriptions of temporarily-forbidden cheeses.