There is quite the debate over which cheeses you can eat while pregnant. If you talk to your healthcare provider you will usually get a very broad answer, it usually goes something like this, “don’t eat soft cheeses and make sure you eat cheese made from pasteurized milk.”
Pasteurization is the process of heat-treating milk with the express purpose of destroying potentially harmful pathogens, such as Salmonella, that the milk may contain. In the U.S., nearly all fresh (unaged, rindless) cheese—like mozzarella, fresh goat cheese/chèvre, ricotta, or feta—is pasteurized. It also means that 99 percent of soft, creamy, spreadable cheeses are pasteurized. Longer-aged cheeses (which will be firmer in texture, potentially even hard, dry, or grainy) may or may not be pasteurized.
Soft cheeses are soft (and by U.S. law pasteurized) precisely because they are younger and higher in moisture. Microbiologically, soft cheeses are more hospitable environments for pathogens (like Listeria) than hard, dry cheeses. Bacteria need moisture to grow. They also thrive in low acid and low salt environments, which is precisely the condition of most pasteurized cheeses in the U.S.
The other thing to consider about cheese is that, even when pasteurized, it can become contaminated by Listeria (or Salmonella or other pathogens) after it is made. Secondary contamination is a risk that can occur farther down the supply chain. Consider two very common circumstances: cheese sliced at a supermarket deli counter, or cheese cut at a retail counter. In either case, deli meat or another cheese that may be contaminated with harmful pathogens can spread bacteria with surprising efficiency if machinery or worker sanitation isn’t rigorously maintained.
Another helpful tip to consider for women craving soft, buttery cheese is to buy individual rounds of pasteurized cheese rather than pieces that have been cut from a larger wheel. These carry no risk of cross-contamination from cutting at the cheese counter. Look for mainstream Brie and Camembert brands available in eight- or nine-ounce rounds, like La Bonne Vie, Le Châtelain, or Président; or American artisan offerings like Jasper Hill Farm’s Harbison or Sweet Grass Dairy’s Green Hill.
“Everything we do carries a little bit of risk so these decisions are ultimately personal.