Cheese has to be one of the most confusing aspects of eating food safely in pregnancy, because there’s no one-rule-fits-all. Parmesan cheese still gets queried a lot, because it CAN be unpasteurized. But does that automatically mean it’s unsafe in pregnancy?
Can Pregnant Women Eat Parmesan? Traditional Parmigiano Reggiano is an unpasteurized, hard cheese from Italy. This parmesan is safe in pregnancy due to its low water content. However, some cheeses can still be called “parmesan” and are made differently, in other countries.
Parmesan is both delicious and versatile, and I know many of you will want to know if you can continue eating it during pregnancy. To try and remove some of the gray areas, I’ve listed common pregnancy-safe brands in this article, plus dishes that contain parmesan and whether they’re OK or not.
Is Parmesan Cheese made with Pasteurized Milk?
First, you ought to know that there are two types of parmesan. One is the classic, protected Italian cheese, and the other is generic. Both get referred to as ‘parmesan’, but they’re quite different.
First, there’s the “real” parmesan – its full name is Parmigiano Reggiano and it will always carry the full name on the label and the rind. It can only be made in certain regions of Italy, and only to a certain recipe and standard. It’s got a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).
Parmigiano-Reggiano is always made with unpasteurized milk, BUT it’s still safe when you’re pregnant. This is because it’s a hard cheese, aged for a minimum of 12 months, and can be aged for much longer. It has a low moisture content, which makes it very difficult for pathogens like listeria to survive in it.
Then there’s “generic” parmesan, which is common in the US and other countries outside Europe. It will either be called “parmesan” or “Reggiano” on the label. Generic parmesan can be made with unpasteurized or pasteurized milk. Both are safe in pregnancy, because of the hard texture of the cheese, and its minimum aging criteria.
A 1990 study deliberately introduced listeria into parmesan in a lab, to see how the bacteria would survive. As the cheese ripened (and dried out), listeria counts lowered to the point of being undetectable after several weeks (source: PubMed). The conclusion was that listeria doesn’t survive very well in parmesan.
Additionally, the FDA considers parmesan as food that “does not support the growth” of listeria, either (source: FDA). In the United States, all unpasteurized milk cheeses, like generic parmesan, have to be aged more than 60 days by law. This means it’s highly unlikely for listeria to survive in it.
Can Pregnant Women only eat Cooked Parmesan?
Parmesan – real or generic – is so unlikely to contain listeria that pregnant women can safely eat it cold, uncooked, or sliced straight out of the packet (or cheese wheel). This is the case, even if it’s made with unpasteurized milk, due to its low moisture content and hard texture.
Most hard cheeses can be eaten uncooked in pregnancy for the same reasons. Softer cheeses, however, need to be either made with pasteurized milk, or be fully cooked. If you’re a cheese fiend like me, you might find this ultimate list of safe pregnancy cheeses useful!
Is Aged Parmesan OK in Pregnancy?
Real, Parmigiano-Reggiano is aged for a minimum of 12 months, all the way up to 36 months. Generic parmesan can be aged anywhere from 10 months upwards.
Aged parmesan is not only safe in pregnancy, it’s theoretically safer, the older it is. The longer parmesan ages, the more dry and brittle it becomes, making it inhospitable to listeria and other pathogens.
That said, all parmesan is safe, at any age. It’s really a matter of taste. The older the cheese, the more expensive, but the more intense the flavor will be.
Is Mold (Mould) on Parmesan Dangerous in Pregnancy?
Real parmesan from Italy doesn’t tend to go moldy, it just dries out. Younger, generic parmesan cheeses may get mold on them over time.
Avoid mold on cheese (or any other food) when you’re pregnant. Depending on the mold and the cheese, it can cause anything from food poisoning to an upset stomach (source: USDA). Unlike mold that is deliberately added to cheese (like blue cheeses), this type of mold is not edible and should be avoided.
Because parmesan is such a hard cheese, the mold is unlikely to have penetrated very far into the cheese, and you can cut it off. However, it’s probably better to avoid any cheese that has gone bad when you’re pregnant, as sometimes it’s hard to tell how deeply the mold has penetrated into the food (source: USDA).
Is Grated, Shredded or Shaved Parmesan Safe When Pregnant?
So long as it’s “Parmesan”, either real or generic, it should still be safe in pregnancy no matter what form it takes. Grated and shredded parmesan is sometimes not made of parmesan at all, so check the ingredients list first. It might be called “Italian cheese” instead, which isn’t the same thing.
To stop the product clumping together, you may see other added ingredients like cellulose. These aren’t harmful, but a whole piece of parmesan won’t have such additions.
If you use a lot of parmesan in your cooking, it’s probably better to use the pure, unadulterated stuff and grate it off a single piece or block. Cross-contamination risks are also lowered because a whole block of cheese has a smaller surface area, too. In the end, it comes down to convenience and your budget.
Pregnancy-Safe Parmesan Brands
As I’ve already mentioned, all parmesan is safe when you’re pregnant.
However, I know it’s sometimes good to be reassured that your favorite brand is OK to eat. Here are some of the popular brands of parmesan, and they’re all safe to eat, cooked or uncooked, in pregnancy:
- Any parmesan labeled “Parmigiano-Reggiano” is safe. This is the genuine parmesan imported from Italy.
- Any store-bought or supermarket own brand (e.g. 365, Tesco, Asda, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, ASDA, Publix and so on)
- Organic Valley
- Olio & Olive
Food Made with Parmesan and its Pregnancy Safety
Parmesan is rarely eaten on its own, of course. Here are some dishes that frequently use parmesan, and whether they’re safe in pregnancy:
- Parmesan cheese crisps or crackers – all are fine to eat when you’re pregnant
- Eggplant Parmesan, also called Eggplant Parmigiana – this is safe to eat in pregnancy as all the ingredients it usually contains are fine. If you’re reheating it or having leftovers, make sure it’s piping hot before enjoying it.
- Chicken Parmesan or Chicken Parmigiana – like eggplant parm, this is also safe to eat, but make sure the chicken is fully cooked throughout (the interior should reach 165F / 74 C, and you can measure this most accurately with a thermometer).
- Parmesan salad dressings – for example, parmesan peppercorn dressing, is safe in pregnancy if the other ingredients are also pregnancy-safe. Dressings sometimes contain raw egg, especially if they’re homemade, and this should be avoided when you’re pregnant (find out more about eggs here). Commercially-made dressings found on a shelf, not a fridge, are usually safe.
This article is one of many on the subject of cheese on this site. If you’re a cheese lover, you might also want to check out my ultimate list of which cheeses are safe in pregnancy.
There are also specific cheeses dealt with, such as: