Proper nutrition and food safety are always important, but they’re arguably never more important than when you’re pregnant.
Mom and baby’s fragile immune systems can’t always handle everyday foods. And some foods that are normally safe become dangerous during pregnancy, so the dietary adjustments can be intense if you’re used to eating whatever you want.
On the other hand, pregnancy-related food cravings are no joke. They’re sometimes strong enough to cause physical pain and mental anguish, and they don’t take nutritional guidelines into account.
So what should you do when you’re pregnant, and you get a hankering for beef jerky that just won’t go away? Is it safe to indulge your jerky craving if you’re snacking for two?
As we’re about to see, the answer is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no.
The Risks of Eating Beef Jerky While Pregnant
Beef Jerky Isn’t Technically Cooked — and Could Carry Foodborne Illness
Meat is generally safe to eat during pregnancy — as long as it’s properly stored and cooked.
That last criterion is what makes beef jerky potentially dangerous: technically, it’s not cooked, just dried.
Cooked Meat vs. Dried — What’s the Difference?
We cook meat at high temperatures to kill bacteria and parasites, including ones that cause serious illness if ingested. These include listeria, E. coli, and toxoplasma, all of which can make you violently ill — but all of which are killed when meat reaches an internal temperature of 160° F.
Meat is typically cooked at much higher temperatures than that — between 300° and 500°. This all but guarantees that any contaminants present in the meat are killed, thus making it safe for human consumption.
But drying is a different story. The drying process takes place over longer periods of time at lower temperatures than cooking, making it potentially less effective at killing dangerous microbes.
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Beef jerky is often prepared in a food dehydrator set to around 160° F — the minimum internal temperature required to kill common foodborne contaminants. If there’s even a slight variance in the actual temperature of the dehydrator, the meat may never reach a safe temperature — and could make you sick if you eat it.
Foodborne Illness and Pregnancy
It’s impossible to tell if beef jerky is contaminated with microbes just by looking at it. And if you buy prepackaged jerky rather than making your own, there’s no way for you to be sure that it ever reached a safe temperature during processing.
We generally accept this risk when we eat anything — there’s always a chance that our food was mishandled or improperly prepared, but that chance is low enough for us to be comfortable with.
But pregnancy complicates this risk assessment. Being pregnant can throw your immune system into a state of chaos as your body adjusts to supporting both you and your baby, whose own immune system is very delicate as it forms.
And without your immune system in top form, you become much more susceptible to foodborne illness.
These illnesses can be severe even for someone in perfect health with a strong immune system, often requiring hospitalization. If you’re in a compromised immune state — and your baby’s immune system isn’t even fully developed yet — the consequences of contracting one of these illnesses could be devastating.
Listeria, for instance, is 10 times more likely to affect pregnant women and can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature labor. It also causes vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration that puts both mother and baby in jeopardy.
For this reason, doctors generally recommend that pregnant women avoid eating dried meats, processed meats, and other foods that carry a higher risk of contamination. This includes beef jerky as well as other types of jerky.
Beef Jerky May Be Too High in Sodium for Pregnant Women
Beef jerky is known for being high in sodium due largely to the amount of salt used to preserve and season the meat. A single serving of beef jerky can contain 25% or more of your daily sodium allowance.
We should all watch our sodium intake to reduce our risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and kidney disease.
But pregnant women need to be especially cautious about how much sodium they consume.
Sodium consumption causes you to retain water, often leading to a feeling of bloatedness. Pregnancy itself also causes this — those swollen feet and ankles are due to increased water retention, so combining that with excess sodium can lead to extreme discomfort.
Sodium, Blood Pressure and Pregnancy
But that’s not all — sodium can also cause your blood pressure to rise.
This isn’t an issue for most healthy people, but pregnancy can cause blood pressure problems even in people who have never had them before. It’s a condition known as gestational hypertension, and the effects can be serious.
High blood pressure reduces blood flow to the placenta, preventing the fetus from getting enough oxygen and nutrients. Over time, this causes slow development, low birth weight, and even premature birth, which in turn can lead to a myriad of health problems throughout the child’s life.
In severe cases, gestational hypertension can develop into preeclampsia, a combination of high blood pressure and other symptoms like protein in the urine, poor blood clotting, or kidney or liver issues.
And preeclampsia can develop into eclampsia, a condition in which high blood pressure causes seizures. These seizures can be life-threatening for both mom and baby.
Unless you’re seriously limiting your overall sodium intake, that beef jerky could put you in the danger zone for developing these issues.
Verdict: You’re Better Off Skipping the Beef Jerky While Pregnant
Pregnancy food restrictions can seem over-cautious. But when the risk is as great as the lives of you and your baby, that caution is well worth the inconvenience — and the disappointment of not getting to eat that jerky.
With that said, if your pregnancy is healthy and normal, there are ways to reduce the risk of eating beef jerky while pregnant — if you’re willing to put in the effort to make your own.
When you make your own beef jerky, you can control the amount of salt used in the seasoning. You can reduce the amount of curing salt, use low-sodium soy sauce in the marinade and adjust the amounts of other salty ingredients.
Before dehydrating the jerky, you can cook it very briefly at a higher temperature in an oven — it should only take a few minutes at 300° or so to reach a safe temperature. Measure the internal temperature with a food thermometer and once it reaches 160°, dehydrate it as you normally would.
These precautions ensure that the two biggest dangers of beef jerky — salt and foodborne illness — are reduced or eliminated. The resulting jerky will be safe for you to eat while pregnant, so you can finally satisfy those crazy cravings… at least for now!
What You Can Eat during Pregnancy (Video)
"You might be a redneck if you think that beef jerky and moon pies are two of the major food groups."
-- Jeff Foxworthy