Seafood is one of the areas that pregnant women often research, as it’s not always clear-cut which types you can safely eat in pregnancy. As someone who eats a lot of mussels (with fries, please), I’ve looked into whether mussels are safe in pregnancy or not.
Is it OK to eat mussels during pregnancy? Pregnant women can safely eat mussels if they’re fully cooked. Unopened, raw or undercooked mussels should be avoided. There are other things to consider when eating mussels, such as the sauces they’re often served in.
Mussels can form a healthy part of your pregnancy diet, so this article looks at common questions about them, why cooking them thoroughly is important and what to look for when making them yourself.
Are Mussels Classed as Shellfish?
Although mussels are often grouped under generic categories like ‘seafood’ or ‘shellfish’, they’re actually a mollusk. A bivalve, if you really want to get technical. They’re in the same family as clams, which are also safe for pregnant women to eat if treated and cooked the same way.
For the purposes of pregnancy safety, you can treat mussels as shellfish or seafood, because the advice is the same: always eat them fully cooked. Raw seafood can harbor viruses or bacteria (source: NHS).
The only extra thing you have to look out for when cooking mussels is to make sure any closed (i.e. dead) ones are discarded. More on this below.
What’s The Mercury Level of Mussels?
The Environmental Defense Fund in the US list mussels as having ‘low’ mercury levels (source: EDF). This makes mussels a good low-mercury choice of seafood in pregnancy. They are also listed as an eco-friendly choice for those who prefer more sustainable seafood options.
A 2006 study in Spain (source: PubMed) investigated the mercury level of canned (tinned) mussels. All of the samples measured came in far below the maximum allowed mercury level as defined by the EU, from 0.012-0.027 mg/kilo. Therefore, canned or tinned mussels are also a good low-mercury choice in pregnancy.
Nutritional Benefits of Mussels in Pregnancy
Mussels pack quite a lot of nutrients for their small size. They’re a great source of iron – something people often struggle to get enough of in their diet.
They’re also a good source of zinc, manganese, selenium, phosphorous, riboflavin, thiamine, vitamin C, and vitamin B12 (source: Precision Nutrition). They’re also high in long-chain fatty acids, too (source: The Guardian).
Mussels are high in protein, and low in fat, so they’re a very healthy pregnancy option if they’re eaten steamed or in a salad (rather than dredged in a creamy sauce, though that’s a delicious way of eating them, too!). Some dishes containing mussels are addressed later in this article.
There is one drawback to eating mussels and that’s watching out for dead or spoiled ones. Freshness and sourcing are key when it comes to preparing them. Always buy mussels from a trusted source, such as your local fishmonger. You can also buy them ready-prepared in a sauce.
If you’re buying mussels to prepare yourself, then tap each shell – it should close, if the mussel is still alive. Discard any that don’t close. After cooking, it’s the opposite – discard any that have not opened. Avoid any mussels with cracked or damaged shells, and ensure the mussels are fully cooked before eating them.
If you’re harvesting mussels yourself, be very careful about the source and edibility, as some mussels grow in unsanitary conditions. Never eat them raw. Farm-raised, rope-grown mussels are a better choice when you’re pregnant as they are routinely tested for contaminants.
Mussel Dishes and Their Safety in Pregnancy
Mussels are safe to eat when they’re cooked, but they’re very rarely served on their own. Here are some mussel dishes that you might have wondered about during pregnancy:
- Cold, cooked mussels – these are often found in seafood salads (also known as ‘fruits de mer’). So long as the mussels were cooked properly and then stored properly in a refrigerator, they’re safe if eaten within a couple of days of being cooked.
- Mussels steamed in white wine are safe to eat in pregnancy. This dish often contains cream or milk as well, which should have been pasteurized. Almost all milk and cream is, but double-check, just in case. There will be some residual alcohol that isn’t cooked out, but this is usually such a small level, it’s not significant.
For more information on this and when you SHOULD avoid alcohol in food, read my article on food cooked with alcohol when you’re pregnant.
- Pickled or marinated mussels – for example, those in vinegar, or in the Spanish ‘escabeche’ style are safe in pregnancy, as they are usually cooked before being marinated, though double check first.
- Smoked mussels – these are safe to eat in pregnancy if they’re hot smoked (where the mussel is cooked at the same time as it’s being smoked). Almost all brands will be cooked and smoked, and are therefore safe. Ask if you’re not sure. Popular brands like John West are safe to eat, and are often found in a tin or can – as below.
- Tinned or canned mussels are safe to eat, as they’re sterilized as part of the canning process, and are always cooked in the can.
- Mussels baked in the shell (or baked without the shell, for example, in a seafood casserole) are safe to eat in pregnancy because they’re cooked during the baking process. If they’ve been baked with cheese, this should be checked against this list of pregnancy-safe cheeses, but it’s almost always safe due to the hot temperatures reached during cooking.
- Mussels cooked in a sauce – from chili to milk or white wine (above), are all safe for pregnant women to eat if the mussels are fully cooked from fresh.
- Deep-fried or breaded mussels are safe to eat because they’re usually fully cooked during the frying process. If the mussels are particularly large, cut one in half first to check it’s cooked and steaming hot all the way through.
Can Pregnant Women Eat All Mussel Species?
Depending on where you live, the mussels you can typically find and eat will differ somewhat. For example, Blue Mussels are the most common. they’re the ones with the black/blue shell with the small, orange-tinted meat inside. These are the ones commonly served up as ‘Moules’ in French restaurants or similar.
The California Mussel looks similar but is larger, and often found along the Californian coastline. Mediterranean mussels are the same size as the blue ones, but are often a brownish color.
Most famous for their size, the New Zealand Green-Lipped Mussel (also known as the greenshell) are often baked in their shells and found extensively across Australasia and some parts of Asia.
All these types of mussels are safe to eat in pregnancy, if they’ve been fully and freshly cooked, and dead ones discarded.
Other Seafood Choices in Pregnancy
Seafood is often a nutritious and healthy food to enjoy in pregnancy. If you want to learn about other types of seafood you can safely eat, you might also be interested in these articles:
- What to watch out for when eating shrimp or prawns
- Everything you need to know about eating salmon
- Which dishes with crab in are safe, and whether imitation crab is OK
- How to safely eat lobster – and why different species matter