Seafood and shellfish always need a bit of investigation when you’re pregnant, as their safety almost always depends on how they’re cooked. In this article, I’ve investigated clams, whether cooked or raw, and dishes that contain them – like clam chowder.
Can pregnant women eat clams? Clams are safe for pregnant women to eat if they are fully cooked. Clams should never be eaten raw or undercooked. They’re safe in clam chowder if the other ingredients are also pregnancy-safe, like pasteurized milk and cream.
Since there are so many ways of preparing and eating clams, I’ve dissected a handful of common clam dishes and will give some tips on how you know a clam is ‘cooked’ enough to be safe in pregnancy.
Can Pregnant Women Eat Cooked Clams Safely?
Clams are made safe in pregnancy by cooking them. Raw clams are risky to eat, whether you’re pregnant or not. This is because raw clams can harbor bacteria and pathogens like Vibrio vulnificus, which is a type of bacteria found in saltwater.
Vibrio vulnificus can be present in almost all seawater, even waters that have been ‘approved’ for harvesting shellfish like clams (source: CDC). Its presence is unrelated to pollution. Affected clams (and oysters) don’t look, taste or smell any different to ones without the bacteria.
Any raw seafood can also contain other pathogens, not just vibrio vulnificus (source: NHS). Pregnant women should avoid all raw shellfish for this reason.
Fortunately, most bacteria are killed by cooking, which is why clams are much safer when they’re cooked. What ‘cooked’ means varies depending on the method.
Here are some guidelines on what ‘fully cooked’ means, according to the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference:
|Clam Cooking Method
|Time / Temperature
|Boiled (including in soup or chowder)
|At least 3 minutes
|At least 3 minutes at 190c/375f
|Broiled / Grilled
|Three inches from the heat for 3 minutes
|Ten minutes at 230c / 450f
|Steamed (also called ‘Steamers’)
|5-10 minutes when the water is already steaming, depending on the size of the clam (see tips below)
If you’re not sure what temperatures your food is reaching, you might want to invest in a good culinary thermometer. They’re super useful when you’re pregnant (and beyond) – you can see my recommended ones here.
Tips for Cooking Unshucked Clams to Make Them Pregnancy-Safe:
- When cooking live clams, gently tap the clam – if it’s still alive and healthy, it should close. Discard any that don’t close.
- Scrub or clean the clam under running water to remove sand or debris.
- Depending on where you got the clams, you might need to soak them so they discharge any grit. To do this, soak in 1/3 cup of salt per gallon of water. Leave for 25 minutes and repeat 2-3 times. Rinse.
- Cook the clam according to the timings above.
- After cooking, you’re now looking for clams that don’t open. Discard any clams that didn’t open during the cooking process.
What is the Mercury Content Level of Clams?
In pregnancy, you should restrict your intake of high-mercury foods. Mercury is commonly found in some fish and shellfish, particularly tuna (I wrote a full guide to tuna and mercury here).
The good news is that clams are very low in mercury, with a mean concentration average of 0.009 PPM (parts per million). To put that into perspective, 0.1 PPM is still considered ‘low’ in mercury, and clams have a fraction of that (source: FDA).
The low mercury level applies to all clam types and species (source: EDF), including:
- Ocean and Northern Quahogs
- Farmed and Wild Pacific Geoduck clams
- Farmed Pacific Littleneck Clams
- Farmed Blood cockles
- Softshell Clams
- Wild Atlantic Sufclams
- Butter Clams
- Farmed Manila Clams
- Steamer Clams (also known as ‘steamers)
A note on wild-harvested clams: mercury levels (and other toxins) can vary from place to place, especially where clams are gathered in the wild. If you’re eating wild rather than farmed clams, it’s a good idea to check your local marine shellfish advisories in the area to see if there have been any reports of contamination.
If there have, avoid eating clams from that source and opt for farmed ones instead, where contaminants are controlled and routinely tested for.
Can Pregnant Women Eat Clam Chowder or Clam Soup?
Clam chowder is probably one of the most popular ways of eating clams, so I’ve given it its own write-up in this section.
Clam chowder, no matter what the style (Manhattan, New England and so on) is safe for pregnant women to eat, if the other ingredients are pregnancy-safe, too (which they usually are if the clam chowder is served hot).
If milk and cream are added, this should be pasteurized – as most are – but even if it isn’t, having the soup hot will likely kill any bacteria.
The only thing to check for is if the clams are fresh rather than canned, they should have been boiled for at least three minutes in the chowder or soup, to cook them fully. This is usually the case, so most clam chowders you either make or order will be fine to eat when you’re pregnant.
Clam Dishes and Pregnancy-Safety
Just so you can be 100% sure what you’re eating is OK in pregnancy, here are some popular dishes or ways of serving clams, and what to check or look for:
- Canned/tinned clams – these are safe to eat, hot or cold if they’re shelf-stable (not in a fridge). They’re usually in a can or jar. The clams are already cooked and are sterile, so are fine if you’re pregnant.
- Clam juice – it’s safe to have clam juice when you’re pregnant if it’s from a commercially-produced jar (e.g. Bar Harbor, Reese, Lookes) since this will be sterilized. Fresh clam juice usually comes from steaming or sauteeing clams, so if served hot, it’s safe. Clam juice used as a base for soups, stews or sauces is also safe because it’s heated up.
- Clam Strips (also called fried clams) – deep-fried clams or clam strips are safe in pregnancy if they’re fully cooked. If the clams are quite large, cut one in half and check it’s steaming hot and cooked all the way through, and they should be fine.
- Stuffed clams – these are usually clams on the half-shell, covered with a filling, topped with breadcrumbs or cheese and oven-baked. Like many other clam dishes mentioned here, stuffed clams are safe to eat if they’re fully cooked. Cheese and other toppings are safe when the same heating process is applied by oven baking them (for more on cheese safety, you can read this article).
Overall, clams are a tasty, low fat, low mercury seafood that can be enjoyed safely in pregnancy, when fully cooked and not raw.
If you’re a pregnant woman who loves her seafood, you might also like to learn about:
- Everything you need to know about eating salmon
- Smoked salmon and whether it’s safe
- Eating prawns and shrimp in pregnancy
- Octopus and the ways it’s cooked to make it OK for pregnant women
- Mussels and mussel dishes
- Whether crab and imitation crab is safe in pregnancy
- An ultimate guide to tuna when you’re pregnant (and mercury in it)
- And finally… how to enjoy lobster safely when you’re pregnant, too!