Of all the foods I’ve written about, whether you can eat ham if you’re pregnant wins the prize for having the most confusing, muddled and contradictory answers. Here, I’ve tried to break down information on all types of ham and whether you can eat them while pregnant.
Can you eat ham while pregnant? Hams that are cured rather than cooked should be avoided in pregnancy. Cold, cooked hams may not be safe if they’re from a deli counter whereas steaming hot ham is safe. The advice on whether you can eat pre-packaged ham in pregnancy varies from country to country.
Still confused? I wouldn’t blame you. There are multiple definitions of ham and conflicting advice depending on your country’s national health authority. To help pregnant women decide on whether they could eat ham without going crazy, I decided to write up a complete guide.
The Types of Ham You Should Avoid in Pregnancy
It’s easiest to start with the types of ham you should avoid completely, no matter which country you’re in, as the advice on this is universal. Pregnant women should avoid eating all ham that is cured, rather than cooked (what the Italians call ‘crudo’). This is when it’s served ‘as is’, usually cold sliced, which is common in most charcuterie of most countries. Anything ‘air-dried’ or cured usually falls under this category:
- Parma Ham
- Serrano Ham
- Iberico Ham
- Black Forest Ham (the dry-cured type that looks like Parma ham)
- Country Ham or City Ham (dry-cured and smoked, but not cooked)
- Smithfield Ham (again, cured, smoked, but not pre-cooked)
- Cold smoked, rather than hot smoked ham (this is rare, e.g. raw bacon designed for cooking)
The reason for avoiding the above types of ham is because of the risk of parasites (usually Toxoplasma gondii) as the ham is technically still ‘raw’ and not cooked. The presence of salt, brine, nitrates (which we’ll come on to later) and other ingredients make it hard, but not impossible, for parasites to survive. It’s worth mentioning that a study in 2017 revealed that cured Parma ham carries a much smaller risk of parasites. The longer the ham is cured, the lower the risk of parasitic infection.
Cooking any of the above hams makes them safer to eat in pregnancy, as this kills any parasites (or listeria bacteria that may be present). You might ask – who’d want to cook parma ham? But this works pretty well, for example, if it was on a pizza and cooked as part of the topping rather than sprinkled on before serving. Here are some more examples of when these hams are cooked and eaten steaming hot, they become safe to eat:
- Parma, Iberico, prosciutto ham on a pizza if cooked until steaming hot under the grill/oven/broiler
- Pancetta that is cubed and cooked/fried and added to sauces or as a salad topping, for example
- Country, City or Smithfield Hams that are baked and served hot
Hopefully, this clears up the advice for pregnant women concerning cold, cured, uncooked ham. Avoid it unless it’s cooked and served hot. The next thing to watch out for is how the ham is stored and served, whether it’s been cooked or not.
Why Pregnant Women Should Avoid Deli Ham
The other risk to pregnant women is if listeria is present. If you’ve not cooked or cured the ham yourself, you’ll probably be buying it to eat at home. Hams are usually carved off the bone or joint, or are pre-cut in a deli. When buying ham or meat from a deli, there is a risk of cross-contamination both in the refrigerated display and on the slicing machine.
Listeria can thrive under refrigeration and is only killed by cooking. Although most businesses have strict sanitation practices and are expected to maintain a high standard of hygiene, there is a larger risk of cross-contamination with other foodstuffs in the same fridge (usually a large display fridge). Additionally, you have no way of knowing how the hams have been stored, or for how long, potentially allowing bacteria to grow. The slicing machine may be contaminated if not cleaned properly, too.
Like many people, I have a local deli that I like and trust, but I don’t know what happens to their hams after closing time. I’ve seen some other places just cover the hams lightly with greaseproof paper until the next morning, and other places wrap and store them carefully. The point is that you really don’t know, so there’s a greater risk of listeria by eating ham from a deli. This includes all kinds of ham, not just the uncured types. It’s really down to you to decide, but pregnant women are generally advised to avoid eating deli ham cold for these reasons.
The same guidelines about cooking also apply to deli ham – if you heat it up thoroughly until it’s steaming hot, then any potential listeria bacteria will be killed and the ham will be safer to eat. As a general rule, microwaving the ham for 30-60 seconds (depending on the power level of your machine) will heat the meat to the ‘steaming hot’ temperature that makes it safe. If you’re checking with a meat thermometer, it should have an internal temperature of 165F, or 75c.
Can I Eat Pre-Packaged Ham (Like Sliced Ham) In Pregnancy?
This is one of the incidences where the advice differs from country to country. Pre-packaged ham, such as they type you buy in a supermarket to make sandwiches with, is deemed safe for consumption in the UK, even if the ham is eaten cold (source: NHS). However, this is not the case in the USA (source: American Pregnancy Association) but it is acknowledged that the risks from packaged ham are low.
Heating the ham to steaming hot dramatically lowers the risk of foodborne illness from packaged ham, no matter which country you’re in.
Can Pregnant Women Eat Baked Hams such as Christmas Ham?
Baked hams have different names depending on the region or country, but they’re all similar to each other in that they are usually a single joint, cured, sometimes smoked, then baked before serving. They may be called:
- Spiral Hams
- Christmas Hams
- Yule Hams
- City hams
- Country hams
- Gammon joints
- Smithfield Ham
- York Ham
- Glazed Hams
- Ham “off the bone”
- .. or simply ‘Baked Ham’
All of these types of ham are safe for pregnant women to eat if they are baked first (not left merely cured and uncooked) and then heated until they’re steaming hot before eating them. This may be a minor adjustment since many traditional hams are served cold, but it’s just as tasty and means you can still enjoy the ham when you’re pregnant. “Steaming hot” means just that – if you’re able to measure the temperature, the slices should be at 165F or 75c.
Honey baked or glazed ham is fine (also served hot), as the honey is cooked during the baking process. Uncooked honey is also fine for pregnant women on a baked ham, as long as the honey is pasteurized, so you should check this first.
Can I Eat A Grilled or Toasted Ham Sandwich or Croissant When Pregnant?
If the ham inside the ‘toastie’ or grilled sandwich (or savory croissant) is steaming hot when it’s served, then ham in hot sandwiches is safe to eat in pregnancy. Eating a regular ham sandwich, with cold ham, is deemed safe in the UK but not the USA, as described above under ‘Pre Packaged Ham’.
Is Tinned / Canned Ham Safe To Eat in Pregnancy?
Any ham that is in a can (e.g. Princes, Swift, Celebrity, DAK, and other brands) and that is shelf-stable (not in a fridge) is safe to eat as the contents are pasteurized during the canning process. This means that even if it’s chopped or luncheon meat style ham (like Spam), it’s still safe as the process will kill any bacteria present.
If the can is in a fridge when you buy it, this means it may be pasteurized, but not sterilized, and may not be as safe. If you want to be 100% safe, heat the ham up until it’s steaming as you would with any other type of ham.
Can Pregnant Women Eat Ham Terrines, Rillettes or Pâté?
Pregnant women should not consume ham terrines (e.g. ham hock terrine), Rillettes or Pâté in pregnancy. This is because these dishes are formed from chopped and mixed pieces of ham, making them more susceptible to listeria contamination. These are best avoided in pregnancy, even if heated up (which you probably wouldn’t want to do anyway!).