You are here

Eating the Placenta: Natural or Taboo for New Moms?

September 21, 2011

The placenta is a miraculous organ: it literally sustains new life. It’s no wonder that the placenta is revered in many cultures as a symbol of life and spirituality, and rituals abound regarding its handling and burial. There’s one new trend, though, that is grabbing headlines like no other – placenta eating.

That’s right. An increasing number of women are requesting that the hospital save the placenta after childbirth so that they can take it home to eat it.

Preparation methods vary – search the Internet for “placenta recipes” and you’ll find instructions for placenta lasagna, placenta pizza, and placenta stew. Other women choose to eat the placenta raw in a power shake or smoothie. For those who feel squeamish about consuming the placenta in food form, a growing number of professional placenta-preparers are being hired to cook the fresh placenta, dehydrate it, grind it, and encapsulate it to be swallowed in pill form.

In a culture where placentas are largely regarded as biohazardous waste and are incinerated shortly after childbirth, this growing practice is causing quite a stir.

Last week on Facebook we posted a link to a New York magazine article featuring IIN student and professional placenta preparer Jennifer Mayer for her work transforming placentas into nutritional supplements. Judging from the responses, people seem to be largely divided into two camps: those who champion the nutritional benefits of placentas and believe that placenta eating (known in the scientific community as placentophagy) is a natural act, and those who think that it’s, well, less than savory.

Why eat the placenta? Integrative Nutrition Student Services Coordinator and resident doula, certified lactation counselor, and breastfeeding educator Aisha Domingue weighs in on the topic:

“From what I have learned and observed, consuming the placenta either in its raw or cooked form or in pill form can have a great positive impact on recovery from labor and birth, management of post-partum depression, and dealing with milk supply issues during breastfeeding. The placenta provided nourishment for the baby throughout the pregnancy – why would it suddenly cease to be rich in nutrients following delivery? Much as people tout the nutritional benefits of other kinds of organs, I am inclined to think that the placenta, which is possibly the only ‘meat’ we have access to without harming another living being, has much to offer new mothers in terms of nutritional benefit.”

The placenta is known to contain high levels of iron, vitamin B-12, and the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Some believe that the “baby blues” are caused by the sudden withdrawal of these hormones after delivery, so ingesting the placenta may offer a mood boost by replenishing these depleted hormone levels.

Critics of placenta consumption insist that there’s no scientific research to support the health benefit claims. Mark Kristal, behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Buffalo and placentophagy expert, explains, “It’s a New Age phenomenon. Every ten or twenty years, people say, ‘We should do this because it’s natural and animals do it.’ But it’s not based on science. It’s a fad.”  Maggie Blott, obstetrician and spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told the BBC, “Animals eat their placenta to get nutrition – but when people are already well-nourished, there is no benefit, there is no reason to do it.”

Most objections to placenta consumption, however, are far less intellectual. Comments on many articles about placenta consumption range from “Ick!” to “Not normal and quite disgusting!” to “I just can’t wrap my mind around it.” Why does this issue cause such strong reactions of disgust in people? Aisha reasons,

“Birth in this country has become such a medical event removed from the natural processes that all mammals experience that it is no wonder that something that reminds people that we, too, are animals puts people off. For those of us who are advocates of the benefits of placenta consumption, it’s hard to shake the element of having to defend something that is currently on the fringes.

So many things related to food, motherhood, and birth are so polarizing for people. Placenta consumption can just be added to a long list of things that people ultimately need to do their own research about and make informed choices about appropriate to their needs.”

Putting gut reactions and taste preferences aside, would you consider eating the placenta for its potential nutritional benefits?