Pregnancy comes with a lot of food restrictions and changes. Many pregnant women find themselves having to alter their diets and avoid certain foods that could pose health risks to their baby. One food that often comes into question is Mexican cheese dip, also known as queso.
During pregnancy, it’s important to avoid foods that could contain bacteria or parasites that can cause foodborne illnesses like listeriosis and toxoplasmosis, both of which can be harmful to the developing fetus. Soft cheeses in particular need to be handled with care.
So what’s the verdict on queso? Here’s what pregnant women need to know about the safety of eating Mexican cheese dip.
Is It Made with Raw Milk?
When it comes to cheese safety during pregnancy, the most important factor is whether the cheese is made from raw (unpasteurized) milk or pasteurized milk.
Raw milk can contain bacteria like Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli, and other germs that can cause foodborne illness, known as listeriosis when caused by Listeria (1). Because the milk is not pasteurized, these bacteria are not killed.
Pasteurization involves briefly heating milk to high temperatures to kill off any dangerous bacteria. Pasteurized milk and cheeses made from pasteurized milk are considered safe to eat during pregnancy.
So when considering queso or any soft cheese, confirm that it’s made from pasteurized milk, not raw. This information may be printed on the packaging. If the packaging doesn’t specify, it’s best to avoid it.
Avoid Queso Made with Raw Milk
Raw milk is sometimes used in Mexican cheese dips, especially those made fresh in-house at restaurants. So if you’re ordering queso at a restaurant, inquire how it’s made and avoid it if the staff confirms it’s made from raw, unpasteurized milk (2).
The risks are too high. An outbreak of listeriosis in North Carolina in 2000 was linked to homemade Mexican-style cheese made from unpasteurized milk, sending 10 people to the hospital (3). In 2015, raw milk cheese from Latin America was tied to a listeriosis death in California (4).
To be on the safe side, only eat queso made from pasteurized milk while pregnant. If you’re uncertain, it’s better to skip it.
Avoid Queso Fresco
There’s one type of Mexican cheese in particular that should be avoided altogether during pregnancy: queso fresco.
Queso fresco is a soft, crumbly cheese used frequently in Mexican dishes. However, most queso fresco is made from raw milk that hasn’t been pasteurized (5).
One CDC study found that more than 80% of queso fresco samples were contaminated with Listeria (6). And between 2013-2017 in the U.S., 22 cases of listeriosis were linked specifically to queso fresco made from raw milk (7).
Because queso fresco is almost always a raw milk cheese, it’s best for pregnant women to avoid it completely to eliminate any risks. Don’t purchase queso fresco from the grocery store or order dishes made with it at restaurants.
Use Pasteurized Feta as a Substitute
If you don’t want to give up queso fresco entirely while pregnant, there is a safe alternative: pasteurized feta cheese.
Feta is a good flavor substitute for queso fresco in recipes like taco fillings, enchiladas, and more. Just be sure to read the label and confirm it’s made from pasteurized milk (8).
Pasteurized feta offers the salty, tangy flavor of queso fresco without the risks of raw milk cheese. Using it in place of queso fresco lets pregnant women enjoy some Mexican dishes without worry.
Avoid Pre-Made Grocery Store Queso Dips
Pre-made queso dips that you find in the refrigerated or freezer sections of grocery stores should also generally be avoided during pregnancy unless you can confirm they are made with pasteurized milk.
The reason is that many mass-produced queso dips contain preservatives and stabilizers that allow them to be shelf-stable for a long time. Unfortunately, these same ingredients may also allow any bacteria present in the cheese to survive over time rather than die off (9).
One study tested several types of these shelf-stable queso products and found high levels of yeast, mold, and harmful bacteria including Staphylococcus and Clostridium bacteria (10).
So even if pre-made quesos are made with pasteurized milk, they can still pose risks due to high bacterial counts. It’s safest to avoid them unless you can verify the pasteurization process from the manufacturer. Making your own queso at home is a good alternative.
Key Things to Look For
When shopping for queso in the grocery store or ordering it at a restaurant, here are some key things to look for to determine safety:
– Confirm it’s made from pasteurized milk. This should be stated on the packaging or menu.
-Avoid queso fresco, since it’s almost always raw milk.
– Avoid pre-packaged queso dips and spreads which may allow bacteria to survive over time.
– At restaurants, ask your server how the queso is made and request pasteurized cheeses only. Many will accommodate this.
– Look for big brand names like Velveeta that you know manufacture pasteurized products.
Tips for Safe Homemade Queso
Making queso at home is a tasty option for pregnant women wanting to control the ingredients. Here are some tips for making it safely:
– Use only pasteurized cheeses like cheddar, monterey jack, and pepper jack. Shred or dice them yourself rather than buying pre-shredded.
– Use pasteurized milk or half-and-half and pasteurized, refrigerated salsa.
– Cook queso to 160°F, until hot and bubbly, to kill any bacteria. Use a food thermometer to check the temperature.
– Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours and use within 3-4 days.
– Avoid raw vegetables that you won’t cook, like fresh chopped onions or cilantro, as produce can harbor Listeria (11).
– Consider using pasteurized feta cheese in place of queso fresco for a similar tangy flavor.
Safe Brands to Look For
If you don’t want to make queso from scratch, some store-bought brands that use pasteurized milk include:
– Velveeta – This classic orange queso made by Kraft is shelf-stable but uses pasteurized cheeses.
– Whole Foods Market Queso – Uses pasteurized milk and cheese curds.
– Tribe Mediterranean Foods Queso Dip – Uses pasteurized milk and feta cheese.
– Brianna’s Homestyle Queso – Uses pasteurized milk and cheese. Marks clearly “made with pasteurized milk”.
Again, always verify pasteurization any time you purchase a pre-made queso dip. Read labels closely or contact the manufacturer if needed.
What About Chili Con Queso?
Chili con queso is a popular Tex-Mex queso dip that also goes by the names chile con queso or cheese dip. It’s made with traditional queso mixed with chili peppers for a spicy kick.
The rules remain the same when it comes to chili con queso—only eat it if it’s made from pasteurized cheeses. You’ll also want to check that any other ingredients mixed in, like the chili peppers, are fully cooked.
At restaurants, ask your server to confirm the cheeses are pasteurized before ordering chili con queso or other seasoned queso dips.
Can I Eat Guacamole?
Guacamole is fine to eat during pregnancy as long as it’s made fresh right before eating. The main risk with guacamole is consuming old, oxidized avocados, not foodborne illnesses.
To enjoy guacamole safely:
– Make it yourself, just prior to eating. Don’t use old, brown avocados.
– If buying pre-made guacamole, look for brands that use high-pressure processing (HPP) to help keep it safe longer, like Wholly Guacamole.
– At restaurants, ask if the guacamole is made to order and avoid if it looks like it’s been sitting out.
Following these tips will help pregnant women safely enjoy Mexican cuisine favorites like freshly made guacamole.
Healthy Queso Alternatives
For an extra level of precaution, pregnant women can opt for some healthier queso alternatives made without cheese altogether. Options include:
– Queso made with pasteurized Greek yogurt instead of cheese
– Vegan queso using vegetables like carrots, cauliflower, and sweet potato
– Bean dip queso made from pureed white beans and spices
– Butternut squash queso using pureed roasted squash
These provide the thick, dippable texture of queso with no risks of unpasteurized cheese. They make great snacks for pregnancy cravings!
The Bottom Line
Here is a quick summary of how to enjoy Mexican cheese dips safely during pregnancy:
– Only eat queso made from pasteurized milk, not raw milk varieties.
– Avoid queso fresco, as it is an unpasteurized cheese.
– Skip most pre-packaged queso dips and spreads.
– In restaurants, ask for pasteurized cheese-based quesos.
– Make your own queso at home with pasteurized ingredients.
– Look for brands clearly labeled as using pasteurized milk.
– Enjoy guacamole freshly made.
– Consider some cheese-free queso alternatives.
Mexican food does not have to be off limits for pregnant women. By being informed about cheese pasteurization and safe food handling, you can satisfy queso cravings without putting your health at risk. Use caution, read labels, and ask questions to enjoy one of the tastiest Mexican appetizers during your pregnancy.