Nothing beats a tasty barbecue joint on a sunny day, or maybe a wedge of hot smoked meat or pastrami sandwich in the winter. Meat is one of those foods that can be pregnancy safe or not depending on how it’s cooked. In this article, I’ll be tackling smoked meat in all its forms – including BBQ.
Can Pregnant Women Eat Smoked, Grilled & BBQ meat? Smoked meat like pastrami, Montreal smoked meat or any BBQ smoked meats are safe for pregnant women if they are thoroughly cooked. However, flame-grilled meat may contain chemicals that are unsafe in pregnancy.
To make it easier to decide which smoked meat to eat in pregnancy, and how much of it, I’ve delved into each type of smoked meat in detail.
Is Smoked Meat Cooked?
The first issue in pregnancy when eating smoked meat is establishing if it’s hot smoked or cold smoked.
Hot smoked meat is cooked at the same time as smoking it (for example, brisket or ribs). Most meat called “barbecue” is hot smoked.
Since hot smoked meat is fully cooked during the hot smoking process, it only needs to be heated up until hot to make it pregnancy-safe, as you would with deli meat, to eliminate any risk of listeria. Many hot smoked types of meat are also deli meats, such as ham or bacon.
The safe temperature for reheating hot smoked meat is 165F, or 75c. The only reliable way to measure this is with a food thermometer. The best one I’ve tested is here.
You can also read this article on how to safely reheat deli meats – the same guidelines apply to hot smoked meats, too.
Cold smoked meat is smoked at a lower temperature to give a smoky flavor, with the intention of cooking it more later (e.g. some hams).
Cold smoked meat (or fish) always needs to be cooked thoroughly, rather than just heated up. Smoked fish like cold smoked salmon is a good example because it’s unsafe to eat “as it is” in pregnancy, and needs to be cooked through. You can read more about smoked salmon here.
Cold smoked fish is more common than cold smoked meat, but it does exist.
However, it’s very unlikely that chicken, beef, pork or turkey will be cold smoked as it will still spoil after the process, and will still be ‘raw’. These meats are more commonly hot smoked, so the heating guidelines above should be followed.
If you’re not sure, or the smoked meat is locally-produced, ask which smoking temperature was used. In general, hot smoking takes place at around 125 – 175F (52 – 80C) and cold smoking is around 68 – 85F (20 – 30C).
Can Pregnant Women Eat Smoked Brisket (e.g. Montreal Smoked Meat?)
Whether it’s at Schwartz’s, the Main, or another smoked meat joint, pregnant women often ask if Montreal smoked meat sandwiches are safe to eat. The same goes for any other smoked brisket (which is the cut used for Montreal smoked meat).
The good news is that yes, you can eat smoked brisket like Montreal smoked meat in pregnancy, so long as it’s served hot. Many delis maintain the meat at a hot, steaming temperature to keep it moist – this also makes it pregnancy-safe, too.
If you’re taking the smoked meat home or don’t eat it straight away, you’ll need to reheat it to a safe temperature, as you would with deli meat. You can read a guide to reheating deli meats safely in pregnancy here.
Hot smoked meat like brisket is a variant of salt beef, or corned beef. There’s an article dedicated to corned beef here, if you also want to eat that in pregnancy.
Hot smoked meats that are safe in pregnancy if heated until steaming hot include:
- Smoked Chicken (usually chicken breasts but any cut is fine)
- Smoked Duck
- Smoked Ham – but check it’s been cooked, not just cured. There’s a complete guide to ham in pregnancy here.
- Smoked Turkey
- Smoked Pork, including pulled pork
Can Pregnant Women Eat Pastrami?
Pastrami is a cured, cooked smoked meat, usually made from beef brisket. You can also get turkey or chicken versions, but they should all be treated the same in pregnancy. Pastrami is safe in pregnancy if it’s served steaming hot, and is thoroughly cooked.
Is Pastrami a Deli Meat?
Pastrami is classed as deli meat, so should be treated exactly the same as other cured, smoked meats (like smoked meat and corned beef). This means:
- Pastrami shouldn’t be eaten cold, due to the risk of listeria contamination. Reheat pastrami to a safe temperature before eating it. This is “steaming hot” – or 165F / 75C if you’re able to measure it with a food thermometer.
- Hot Pastrami sandwiches are fine in pregnancy if the meat is steaming hot before being served. Some sandwich places may only warm the meat, but it needs to be hot – so ask for it to be heated separately. You can use the heating tips in my deli meat article as a guide.
- If you’ve accidentally eaten cold pastrami then don’t panic, and take a ‘watch and wait’ approach. It’s likely you will be fine, but you should be vigilant and look out for any symptoms. Read more on what to do if you’ve eaten cold deli meat in pregnancy here.
The Important Difference Between BBQ and Grilled Meat
There has been a lot of confusion about whether barbecued meat is safe in pregnancy.
Part of the problem is because the term ‘barbecue’ means something different in the USA compared to many other countries.
- “Barbecue” as truly defined in the USA is meat that is cooked “low and slow”, hot smoked over moderate temperature, for a long time. Think brisket, ribs or pulled pork.
- “Grilled Meat” is meat that is cooked fast over coals, charcoal, or wood, at a high temperature. It’s the type that produces char or blackening. Think steaks, chicken legs, burgers, sausages… summer gatherings around a grill.
The problem is that in many countries (like the UK and most of Europe), people call it “barbecue” or “BBQ” when really, they mean grilling. It’s the same in Australia, where it’s shortened to “Barbie”.
Even in the USA, some people say they’re “going to a barbecue” when the activity is actually grilling.
Now that you can define the cooking method you’re using, be aware that it’s grilled meat that you need to be mindful of in pregnancy. NOT barbecue.
Part of the problem is that an often-cited Polish study incorrectly labeled grilled meat as ‘barbecue’ due to the same language difference, so I’ve broken this down below.
Can Pregnant Women eat BBQ Meat?
Barbecued meat, when cooked in the traditional method of “low and slow”, is safe for pregnant women to eat.
This is only when it can be truly defined as BBQ and NOT grilled meat (read above for the difference – it’s important).
Examples of true barbecue:
- Smoked pulled pork
- Racks of ribs
- Whole hams or knuckles
- Large joints like shoulders or legs
All the above foods are the same as ‘hot smoked’ foods or “smoked BBQ” as they often have a smoky flavor. They’re cooked over coal, wood or other fuels but the common factor is that it’s at a low, slow temperature without flames.
Hot smoked barbecue or slow-cooked barbecue meats are safe to eat in pregnancy if they’ve been fully cooked, and either eaten straight away after cooking or reheated until steaming hot.
Can Pregnant Women Eat Grilled Meat?
Grilled meat is often incorrectly labeled as BBQ or barbecue. It’s where meat or other foods are cooked fast and hot over coals, wood or other fuel.
Examples of grilled meat:
- Steaks (any meat, or thick-sliced fish)
- Kebabs or skewers
- Small joints (e.g. chicken drumsticks)
- Anything charred or blackened
You may want to consider only eating small amounts of grilled meat in pregnancy, or avoid it altogether, particularly in the third trimester.
This is due to the chemical reactions that take place during flame-grilling, when fat and drippings hit the heat source, creating ‘flare-ups’. This reaction produces Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) (source: PubMed).
PAHs have been widely studied and are likely carcinogenic, depending on the amount ingested (source: ATSDR).
A significant study was published in the Journal ‘Nutrition’ in 2012. Scientists in Poland found a link between eating grilled meat in the third trimester and low birth weight, shorter babies and a smaller head circumference of newborns (source: PMC)
In the study, researchers refer to “barbecued” food, but the cooking method they describe is what can be defined as grilled food.
They described barbecue as “meat or its products are cooked over dry heat from open fire” and then refer to the subsequent reaction “when food is in direct contact with flame, pyrolysis of fats in the meat and smoke of hot charcoal generate great amounts of PAHs, that mostly accumulate in the outer surface of the barbecued meat.”
The two references cited both refer to flame-grilling and grilling, not barbecue. Smoked food was assessed at the same time, and was not found to have the same effect.
Unfortunately, this linguistic difference has meant that some pregnant women have been told to avoid barbecue when it’s really that they should consider avoiding or reducing their intake of grilled food.
Bear in mind, though, that this is just one study, and the women in it were documenting their own food intake, which isn’t always reliable.
I’ve Eaten Grilled Meat – Should I Worry?
There’s no need to panic if you’ve eaten grilled meat. It is likely that you and baby will be fine.
The caution in pregnancy refers to a build-up of PAHs from eating grilled food more frequently. A one-off burger is very unlikely to cause any harm. Grilled food in moderation is probably fine. After all, in some cultures where grilling is common (like Australia), there’s no specific advice for pregnant women – other than avoiding undercooked food.
However, now that you know what to avoid, you can make other choices rather than eating a lot of grilled food during your pregnancy.
If you’re at a party or gathering and there’s grilled food, or if you’re making it yourself, you can take steps to reduce the potential for PAH by:
- Cutting the food into small amounts to reduce the cooking time
- Cooking for longer, at a lower temperature
- Using foil or a shield to avoid flare-ups
- Turn meat often to avoid burns or chars
- Baking or roasting in the oven and finishing briefly on the grill to get the same smoky taste
By far the riskiest aspect of grilled food isn’t the presence of PAH but that grilled food is very often cooked incorrectly or not enough by home cooks.
This “done on the outside, raw in the middle” issue is pretty common and should be looked out for in pregnancy as it frequently causes foodborne illness.
If you’re cooking food yourself – including smoked, grilled or barbecued meat, I’d always recommend using a professional food thermometer to check the internal temperature has reached a safe level. You can view my recommended ones here.
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