Is it Safe to Eat Liver or Liver Pate During Pregnancy?

Q: Is it safe to eat liver or liver pate during pregnancy?

There are several concerns with eating products made from liver in pregnancy. First and foremost, liver products such as pate have been associated with an increased risk of infection such as listeria which can lead to miscarriages or stillbirths in pregnancy.

Liver has a high amount of vitamin A, a vitamin that's been associated with birth defects, and though it is not proven that eating liver causes birth defects, the safest approach is for pregnant women to minimize their consumption of liver. Liver is the only food that provides very high amounts of vitamin A. The amount of vitamin A found in liver varies. For example, a 3-ounce serving of beef liver may contain 27,000 IU and chicken liver, 12,000 IU.

There is some concern about consuming liver during pregnancy. Liver is a good source of protein and is rich in certain vitamins and minerals. These include:

  • The B vitamin folic acid, which helps prevent certain birth defects
  • Iron, which helps prevent anemia
  • Vitamin A, which is needed for normal fetal growth and development

Some studies suggest that high doses of vitamin A may cause birth defects. According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin A per day for pregnant women is 2,565 IU (international units). A 1995 study found that women who took more than 10,000 IU of vitamin A daily (nearly four times the amount recommended by the IOM) in the first two months of pregnancy had more than double the risk of having a baby with birth defects. Other studies have suggested that doses under 30,000 IU daily probably do not cause birth defects, but the lowest dose that may cause birth defects is unknown.

The body is able to make its own vitamin A, when needed, from substances such as beta carotene, which is found in yellow and green vegetables. This raw material for the vitamin is considered completely safe and healthy during pregnancy. However, much of the vitamin A we consume is the preformed vitamin (retinol) which, in excessive amounts, may cause birth defects. Preformed vitamin A is found in many vitamin supplements and some foods, including meats, eggs, dairy products and fortified breakfast cereals.

A pregnant woman also should be sure that her multivitamin or prenatal supplement contains no more than 5,000 IU (international units) of preformed vitamin A (some prenatal vitamins contain no preformed vitamin A, substituting beta-carotene or omitting vitamin A entirely), and she should not take any vitamin A supplements beyond that amount.