Contaminants on your plate
Think you don't have to worry if you only eat "natural" and organic foods? Some experts claim the greatest risks during pregnancy have more to do with food handling and selection than with how food is grown. In fact, according to Roberta Anding, R.D., a national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, one of the most worrisome issues for pregnant women is food-borne illness from bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes. "Avoid unpasteurized juices; soft cheeses such as Brie, feta, blue and Camembert; raw sprouts; raw milk products; and raw or undercooked meat or fish," she advises.
But how foods are grown also is important. According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that researches and exposes health threats, people can lower their exposure to pesticides by up to 90 percent if they avoid the 12 most contaminated conventionally grown fruit and vegetables and instead eat the least contaminated (see lists at the end of this article).
"Whether organic or conventional, it's important to wash all produce carefully," Woodin says. "And don't expect a quick rinse to obliterate pesticides." Try a 30-second rinse, followed by a 15-second wash in slightly soapy water, then a final rinse. Or, use a natural produce wash such as Bi-O-Kleen, made from grapefruit seed extract (bi-o-kleen.com) or Veggie Wash, made from citrus, corn and coconut (veggie-wash.com).
Assuming you're not a vegan, you also have to be vigilant about animal products. Conventionally raised animals often are fed hormones and antibiotics to enhance growth, increase milk production and prevent disease. These chemicals are subsequently passed on to consumers via the animals' meat and milk. Buying organic meat and dairy products guarantees you get food that's free of hormones and antibiotics. What's more, a recently released study from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit alliance of independent scientists and citizens, found that meat and milk from grass-fed cattle have higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, and the meat is leaner than that from conventionally raised cattle.
When it comes to fish, large, long-lived varieties such as swordfish and sea bass contain high levels of methylmercury, which can damage the fetus's developing brain. "The larger the fish, the more likely it is to have unsafe levels of mercury," Anding says. According to current U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommendations, pregnant women can safely eat an average of 12 ounces of low-mercury fish each week. Choose from a variety of smaller seafood, such as shellfish, salmon, catfish and tilapia. Avoid eating larger fish, such as shark, swordfish, tilefish, sea bass, tuna steaks and king mackerel, and limit canned tuna to once per week.
Prolonged or repeated exposure to even small amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pollutants that concentrate in the fatty tissues of fish, can cause developmental and neurological damage to fetuses, babies and children. To avoid PCBs, trim the fat, remove the skin and fillet the fish before cooking, then discard the cooking juices.