This is a question I get asked a lot. I have always been pretty conservative in answering for a variety of reasons, mostly because there *are* risks to eating raw foods for anyone, especially during pregnancy, and since I am not a doctor, I don’t want my musings interpreted as medical advice. That said, there are also reasons why I think pregnant women might want to eat sushi.
Seafood is good for you. Seafood is great for developing babies. The fatty acids found in seafood (Omega-3 fatty acids) are pretty much a requirement for growing babies, which means that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should be consuming omega-3 fatty acids. And we generally don’t get enough of them in our diet. A new study in the British journal Lancet found, after analyzing data from approximately 9,000 British mothers and their children over an eight-year period, that pregnant women who ate less than 12 ounces of seafood a week did not protect their children from adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes. Limiting seafood during pregnancy can actually be a detriment to the developing baby. The study found that limiting seafood actually increased the child’s risk of poor verbal IQ development compared with mothers who ate more than 12 ounces of seafood per week. Those children were also at greater risk of poor social development and poor motor control. Not getting enough of the proper nutrients is obviously quite a detriment to a developing child.
In North America, doctors often suggest that pregnant women refrain from eating sushi due to the risks of parasitic and bacterial contamination. The problem is not always that the particular item you are eating might be bad, but also one of cross contamination. Any contaminated food that is cut with the same knife which is then used for your item, or placed on the same surface as your California roll, will cause your item to become contaminated. My wife and I struggled with this issue during her pregnancies and found two solutions. She only ate the cooked items and the first solution was to simply ask the itamae to use a clean knife and a different surface to make her rolls than the others. We are regulars at our favorite restaurant and were comfortable asking him, and when told she was pregnant, he was happy to oblige our request. We ate sushi a lot during her pregnancies 🙂
Our second solution was to make sushi at home. This may seem a bit intimidating to some, but is surprisingly fun and easy. In fact, you can find detailed instructions to make sushi at home at my How to Make Sushi at Home section of The Sushi FAQ. If you are making the sushi yourself, you should have pretty good control over the sanitary conditions, but unless you are sure of the surface and knife used to make your food, you may not be any safer eating California roll in a restaurant than eating the raw tuna.
For those interested in eating sushi when pregnant, California rolls are an excellent choice, as are other cooked items such as unagi maki (eel rolls), and the various tempura rolls that are often offered (e.g. shrimp tempura roll). If you are making sushi at home, your options expand greatly and you can make any kind of roll you want, for example, cooking salmon and making you own cooked salmon and avocado rolls (quite good, especially when still warm). Use your imagination and there are a number of great sushi items to pick from. My only other advice for pregnant women would be to avoid the larger predatory fish, such as swordfish, shark, and tilefish, as some contaminants, such as mercury, concentrate as they move up the food chain. But with sensible decisions, the sushi world is your oyster.