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Baby food

(article, Caroline Cummins)

So a few months ago, in the New York Times, Julia Moskin found herself musing about our ever-changing attitudes toward the pregnant.

"Pregnant women are slow-moving targets for strangers who judge what we eat — and, especially, drink," wrote Moskin. 

She went on to discuss our evolving notions of whether women should drink alcohol while gravid (in the 1980s, no way, but these days, maybe a little) and from there to the broader question of what moms-to-be should eat, period: 

bq(blue). Americans’ complicated relationship with food and drink — in which everything desirable is also potentially dangerous — only becomes magnified in pregnancy. . . . Pregnant women are told that danger lurks everywhere: listeria in soft cheese, mercury in canned tuna, salmonella in fresh-squeezed orange juice. Our responsibility for minimizing risk through perfect behavior feels vast.

Moskin notes that, while American women are forbidden certain edibles based on the conventional scientific wisdom of the day, this received knowledge is not universal everywhere; women who are enceinte in France, for example, are told to avoid raw vegetables (i.e., salad) but to feel free to imbibe. 

Three years ago, on Slate, Sara Dickerman rebelled like Moskin. "Incessant warnings from doctors, friends, and the Internet tend to give the modern pregnant woman a nasty case of 'pregnancy paranoia,'" she wrote.

She continued:

bq(blue). The list of sketchy comestibles is almost comically long. Alcohol is an obvious no-no even though it's unclear whether or how moderate drinking could lead to fetal alcohol syndrome or miscarriage. We are also told to avoid deli meats (listeria risk), sushi (parasite risk), coffee (possible miscarriage risk), soft and blue cheeses (listeria again), peanut butter (allergy risk), tuna (mercury risk), liver (retinol poisoning risk), aïoli (salmonella risk), herbal teas (untested medicinal effects), and any meats cooked less than shoe-leather tough (toxemia risk).

To drink, or not to drink? To chow down on salad, shellfish, raw cheese, fish? Will I damage my child by consuming something, or not consuming enough of something else?

It's enough to make you want to roll over (slowly, because your tummy is a beach ball) and do what my sister did when pregnant: eat whatever she felt like. (Salads, red meat, and French fries, mostly.) 

The latest pregnancy-diet scare is the mercury-in-fish problem. As Marion Nestle points out in her book What to Eat, methylmercury — an industrial pollutant pervasive everywhere and, thus, present in fish everywhere — is the same stuff that, in massive concentrations, deformed babies born in Minamata, Japan, in the 1950s. Because of mercury, the FDA has decreed that no pregnant woman should eat more than 12 ounces of fish a week. But fish is the single best source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for fetal development.

So what's a mom to do? Well, that's up to her. But studies have shown that, despite the potential risk of mercury ingestion, the benefits of eating fish while pregnant are undisputed. 

"It is very clear that omega-3 fatty acids are very important for brain development," Gary J. Myers, a University of Rochester professor of neurology, told "It is less clear that mercury at the levels you get from eating fish poses a risk."

The friend you know, versus the enemy you don't.