Is Eel Safe For Pregnant Women to Eat (e.g. Sushi and Sauce)?

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Written by Gina Wagg BA, Dip.

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When you’re pregnant and checking whether seafood is safe to eat, there are some creatures that aren’t easy to categorize. Eels are one of these – they are fish, even though they don’t really look like it. Does this mean they’re safe to eat, or are risky in pregnancy? I decided to find out.

Is eel safe for pregnant women to eat? Eating eel in pregnancy is usually safe because eel is always served cooked (it’s toxic if it isn’t). This means eel is one of the few sushi rolls that pregnant women can eat. Eel sauce is also safe, because it doesn’t contain eel.

For those curious about whether eel contains mercury and what you should look for when eating it in pregnancy, read on. I’ve covered some of the most popular eel dishes if you wanted to check exactly what’s on your plate.

Does Eel Contain Mercury? If so, How Much?

Eels are rarely farmed and are often caught wild (source: EDF). This means that their mercury content can vary, depending on where they’re caught and what their habitat is like.

The two most common food species, freshwater and conger eels, are historically considered to be “low” in mercury (source: NRDC), though the EDF Seafood Selector has the current status as “elevated” (source: EDF).

To find out more, I sourced information from Japan, the country that eats 70% of the world’s global eel catch (source: Wikipedia).

The Japanese government conducted a study on eel mercury levels in 2000 and 2001. Anago (conger eels) averaged 0.048 PPM (parts per million) mercury, and Unagi (freshwater eel) was only slightly higher at 0.052 PPM. In both instances, this is considered to be a very low level of mercury (source: Food Sanitation Council of Japan).

Subsequently, the level of mercury in eels can be presumed to be low on average, so pregnant women can eat eel safely as a ‘low mercury’ fish, and as part of a balanced diet.

Note that if you’re in the UK, the NHS recommends that you eat a maximum of two portions of oily fish a week, due to concerns about pollutants such as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (source: NHS). Eel is classed as an oily fish (source: Medical News Today), so would fall under these recommendations. In other countries, there is no stated limit.

holding eel sushi with chopsticks

Can Pregnant Women Eat Eel Sushi?

Eel is very common in sushi, and it’s one of the few types of sushi roll that can be eaten safely in pregnancy. This is because eel is always cooked. Eel can’t be served raw, as its blood contains toxins that have to be cooked out (1).

Common eel sushi types you might come across are:

  • Unagi – freshwater eel, often served cooked in a roll (a dragon roll is sometimes unagi and avocado, which is also safe in pregnancy)
  • Anago – saltwater or conger eel
  • Kabayaki – split and broiled eel, covered in a sweet sauce
  • Unadon – grilled or broiled eel, served over rice, with sauce

The good news is that all of the above are safe to eat if you’re pregnant, so long as the eel has been fully cooked.

The only thing you need to look out for is undercooked eel, though this is quite rare. If in doubt, cut open the fattest part of the eel and check that it’s done all the way through.

Can Pregnant Women Eat Eel Sauce?

There’s a bit of confusion floating around when it comes to eel sauce (sometimes called unagi sauce). Eel sauce is a condiment that’s supposed to go WITH eel, rather than being a sauce MADE of eel.

Eel sauce is often used to glaze or spread over any of the common eel dishes, particularly when it’s grilled or broiled. Its ingredients vary, but commonly it contains soy sauce, mirin (Japanese wine) or sake, and sugar. It doesn’t contain eel!

Pregnant women can eat eel sauce safely. The small amount of alcohol used in eel sauce isn’t usually enough to be a concern in pregnancy. If you’re making your own eel sauce, you can use less. For more on this, you might want to read whether you should eat food containing alcohol when you’re pregnant.

smoked eel sashimi on a white plate

Ways of Cooking Eel and its Safety in Pregnancy

Just in case you’re eating an eel dish that hasn’t been mentioned already, for the avoidance of doubt, here are the most common ways of cooking eel that you can safely eat in pregnancy:

  • Smoked eel – this is safe in pregnancy if it’s ‘hot smoked’ eel, which it usually is. Avoid cold-smoked eel – this may not be cooked or cured enough to make it safe to eat in pregnancy.
  • Baked eel – baked eel is fine to eat when you’re pregnant, so long as the eel is fully cooked. Whole roasted, oven-baked eels are safe in pregnancy.
  • Grilled, broiled or BBQ eel – this is the most common way of cooking and eating eel, particularly in Japanese restaurants. All these types of cooked eel are safe for pregnant women, just check it’s cooked all the way through and it should be fine to eat.
  • Jellied eel – these are a London delicacy and although harder to find these days, they’re safe in pregnancy as the eel is cooked as part of the jellying process. It’s usually eaten cold.
  • Eating elvers in pregnancy – elvers are baby eels, so are pregnancy-safe if the same precautions are taken as with normal eels, in that they should be cooked thoroughly.
grilled eel on a platter

Is Eel Good for Pregnant Women?

Eel can be a nutritious type of fish for pregnant women to eat, because they’re high in omega-3 fatty acids, and are a good source of selenium, magnesium, iron, calcium, zinc, phosphorus and manganese (source: BI).

Eel is also high in protein and contains several vitamins such as A, B12 and vitamin E. Due to their oily nature, eel can be quite calorific (375 per average fillet), but this is mostly monounsaturated fat (source: NutritionData).

Eel portions are normally quite small, particularly if they’re in a sushi roll, so eel can be safely enjoyed as part of a balanced pregnancy diet.

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