One of the most polarizing foods, folks either love liver, or love to hate it.
Liver’s safety during pregnancy is not any clearer, with the governments of many countries disagreeing on how much is safe to eat while pregnant, and even if liver is safe to eat at all.
Liver’s high vitamin A content leads to much reservation around the food during pregnancy. Though a standard serving of liver meats isn’t safe, liver can still be part of your pregnancy diet if small portions are eaten in moderation.
Liver’s safety can be quite confusing. With so much disagreement, I’ll dive into the recommendations from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, America, and Canada.
I’ll also give you guidance on which dishes to avoid and which are safe when eaten sparingly.
Is Eating Liver Safe or Harmful During Pregnancy?
The amount of contradictory advice on liver’s safety during pregnancy can be overwhelming. It’s further confused by the fact that the ‘official’ advice differs depending on where you live.
In the UK, the National Health Service recommends that pregnant women completely avoid all types of liver (source: National Health Service).
This is the only country to do so, as the guidance from Australia/New Zealand, Canada, and the United States doesn’t completely discourage it.
Across Healthy Canada (Canada), Food Standards (Australia and New Zealand), and the American Pregnancy Association (America), liver is not listed as a “food to avoid” during pregnancy (sources: HealthLinkBC, Food Standards AU/NZ, American Pregnancy Association).
Canada takes it one step further, recommending that eating less than 2 ½ ounces (75 grams) liver is a safe amount (source: HealthLinkBC).
Why is liver such a contended topic? It’s because of Vitamin A and its precursor, retinol.
The high concentration of vitamin A in liver and liver products is what leads to caution during pregnancy, as too much vitamin A can be toxic to both mom and baby.
Overall, while not all national health organizations agree, eating liver during pregnancy is unlikely to harm your baby so long as it is enjoyed in a moderate amount with food safety in mind – more on this below!
Types of Liver and Their Safety When You’re Pregnant
Just as meats have a variety of fat content, protein, and other nutrients, the amount of vitamin A in liver also varies based on the animal of origin.
What’s more, some liver dishes are traditionally served cold, which is a safety red-flag while pregnant.
The list below breaks down the pregnancy safety for a variety of different types of animal liver.
Chicken Liver When Pregnant
Chicken livers are often served as a pate, which is not safe during pregnancy. Read why pate is best avoided in our article here.
Otherwise, chicken livers can be sauteed/fried, and will be safe if fully cooked and eaten in moderation – around a few tablespoons.
Safe cooking and portions are covered later in this article.
Duck and Goose Liver During Pregnancy
Duck and/or goose liver are most commonly found as foie gras, or “fat liver.”
Unfortunately, many popular preparation methods don’t cook the liver hot enough to kill off bacteria, making it unsafe for pregnant women to eat.
We have a foie gras guide to pregnancy, which explains why most types aren’t safe for pregnant women.
Duck livers also commonly come as terrines or pate, or in a mousse.
They usually aren’t safe either, because the preparation makes them more susceptible to bacterial contamination. For more on this, see our pate and pregnancy article.
Another caution is the vitamin A content, and acceptable serving sizes are only around a few tablespoons.
Beef or Ox liver When Pregnant
Beef liver is one of the highest vitamin A containing foods, with 3 oz contributing over 3 times the daily limit. While not off the table, keep the serving to only a few tablespoons.
Beef liver is the main component in the Eastern European (and Wisconsin) staple, liver and onions.
So long as the liver is cooked thoroughly it is safe to enjoy- but maybe go heavy on the onions to keep the liver portion small.
Pork, Lamb or Mutton Liver During Pregnancy
Pork liver is another type most commonly served hot.
Similar to beef liver, keeping the portion size in mind and ensuring a thoroughly cooked dish are the keys to safety. We cover more on cooking liver later in this article, below.
Lamb liver contains nearly 25,000 IU of vitamin A per 3 oz serving, over twice the daily limit.
Following suit to pork and beef liver, a (very) limited portion is the safest choice if you do choose to eat lamb liver when you’re expecting.
Is Liver Sausage or Chopped Liver Safe in Pregnancy?
Liver sausage, also called Braunschweiger or liverwurst, is deli meat that is not only soft and spreadable but served cold – a big pregnancy red-flag.
Heating to steaming hot is the only way to make liverwurst, or any other type of sausage safe during pregnancy.
Like with all liver products, a conservative portion is best. If you want to know how best to heat liverwurst, you can read our guide to deli meat when pregnant, which also includes safe heating methods and temperatures.
Chopped liver is a popular food in the Jewish culture, usually made from chicken or beef livers.
While the liver is cooked before chopping the resulting dish is served chilled, as a pate.
The only way to make chopped liver pregnancy-friendly is to heat to “steaming hot” before taking a bite – which may mean that the texture isn’t very pleasant.
Why Should Pregnant Women Avoid Eating Too Much Liver?
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it does not get flushed out of your body when you pee. Because your body holds on to and stores vitamin A, it is easier for it to build up to potentially harmful levels.
Ingesting too much vitamin A, whether from food or supplements, is toxic and pregnancy is no exception. For an unborn baby, too much vitamin A can lead to serious birth defects.
To help guide healthcare providers and pregnant mothers alike, the World Health Organization (WHO) set a limit of 10,000 international units (IU) of preformed vitamin A daily as the absolute highest safe amount to consume regularly (source: Nutrients).
Please know, the safety limit of 10,000 IU is meant for women who will be regularly getting this much vitamin A.
Because vitamin A is stored in the body, this limit is based on the safety of consuming 10,000 IU on a daily basis. If you regularly only get, say 3,000 IU of vitamin A each day, getting 12,000 IU one day per week will more than likely still be safe.
Remember, the safety limit is a total for the entire day when the limit is regularly reached.
So while 1 oz of liver does contain more than the daily limit, eating this smaller portion sparingly won’t overdo it, especially if your vitamin A intake is normally a bit lower.
We have a dedicated article about vitamin A, food sources and its importance in pregnancy, too.
The Benefits of Liver for Pregnant Women
Liver isn’t only rich in vitamin A. The liver is the body’s storage center for a wide array of nutrients, making it a nutritional powerhouse.
The organ is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, namely vitamins B2, folate, B12, iron, and copper. Just 3.5 oz of liver has over 3000% of the daily value of vitamin B12!
Requirements for all of these nutrients are increased during pregnancy.
Even just a few bites of liver, keeping within a safe amount due to the high concentration of vitamin A, provides enough B2, folate, and B12 to meet daily needs (source: HealthLine).
Can Liver be Eaten in Every Trimester?
The nutrients found in liver meats are needed at all stages of pregnancy.
However, the concerns of getting too much vitamin A are most worrying during early pregnancy, or the first trimester.
Early pregnancy, when the baby is rapidly developing and body structures begin to take form, presents the highest risk for serious birth defects related to excessive vitamin A.
During the first quarter of pregnancy, excess vitamin A can lead to both nervous system and heart abnormalities (source: Nutrients).
In contrast, the vitamins and minerals found in liver appear to provide the most benefit during later pregnancy, or the second and third trimester.
The B vitamins and iron help to support the increase in blood volume being made by the mother.
Are Liver Oils or Supplements Safe During Pregnancy?
Liver oils are most commonly found as cod liver oil.
Note that cod liver oil is a different product than fish oil, as it is made from only the livers of the fish.
Liver oil does contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, however, supplements like liver oil are an easy way to accidentally overdo it on vitamin A.
Because of the large amount of vitamin A in such a concentrated product, the National Health Service (UK) advises women to steer clear of liver oil while pregnant (source: NHS).
Similarly, Healthy Canada recommends pregnant women avoid taking liver oil if they already take a multivitamin in order to avoid excessive vitamin A (source: Healthy Canada).
Even if you’re tracking your vitamin A intake, knowing the exact amount you consume from supplements is difficult.
Nutrition supplements in the US aren’t regulated by the government, meaning the label may not accurately reflect how much vitamin A you’re really getting.
To best ensure safety while pregnant, avoid liver oil supplements or tinctures unless prescribed a supplement by your medical provider.
I also wrote a guide to fish oil during pregnancy, which is a different product that does potentially offer pregnancy benefits.
What If I Accidentally Ate Liver, or Too Much Of it?
If you’re a woman in the UK who has eaten liver when NHS advises against it, or maybe you’ve been regularly enjoying liver not realizing some of the risk- don’t fret!
While liver does carry risk of vitamin A toxicity, overindulging on occasion won’t automatically mean you’ve had too much vitamin A.
Remember, the safety limit for vitamin A is the highest amount safe for daily consumption.
When eaten in moderation, liver can remain part of a healthy pregnancy diet.
If you feel you’ve had liver more than “in moderation” the best thing to do is decrease your intake.
Be upfront and discuss your liver intake with your medical provider at your next check-up, but rest assured that moderate amounts of liver can still be safe, and even beneficial, for you and baby.
Overall, eating liver meat while pregnant is a bit of a contended topic, even between national health organizations.
While liver does offer hefty amounts of B vitamins, iron, and copper, its high vitamin A concentration can be harmful.
Though liver oils are best avoided during pregnancy, enjoying only small portions of liver meat on occasion can keep you from overdoing it on vitamin A.