Eating Placentas as Healthy Cuisine?
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The practice of placentophagy, or placenta eating, has been around about as long as placentas have. Most mammalian mothers do it, including herbivores like cows and deer. Given how appetite-suppressing the sight of placenta is -- especially, I'd imagine, to vegetarians -- mammals must have some truly compelling reasons for turning away from their newborns to slurp down bloody afterbirth.
For those who haven't seen one, a human placenta is kind of a slimy hunk of medium pizza-sized, membrane-wrapped bloody flesh. I recently watched more than my share of placenta footage during a section on emergency childbirth in an EMT course I'm taking. The teacher instructed us to save the placenta and bring it along with mother and child to the hospital, where it may be useful as evidence in case of subsequent medical complications, or as a source for blood if the baby needs a transfusion.
Also, teacher said, some women want to keep their placentas.
Some mothers want to bury it ritualistically, she explained, and do something like plant a tree over it. And some want to eat their placenta.
The room filled with agonized groans.
"My friend ate her placenta in a blueberry smoothie," said a guy in back.
Again came the question, "Why?"
There are many theories of why animals eat their placentas, and there are many beliefs that motivate human moms to do the same. There are also people who want to help eat their friends' placentas. Placentovores believe the placenta is a precious item full of nutrients, hormones and other goodies.
Eating placenta supposedly helps with the tremendous hormonal reprogramming that a woman undergoes after birth. In Chinese medicine, dried placenta is given to new mothers to increase lactation and prevent postpartum depression.
The lactation-enhancing qualities of dried placenta were substantiated by research in the 1950s. More recently, researchers have connected postpartum depression with a lack of corticotropin-releasing hormone, or CRH, a hormone that helps people deal with stress. CRH is normally released by the hypothalamus, but it's also released by the placenta in pregnant women, causing the hypothalamus to ramp down production. After the placenta is delivered and before the hypothalamus resumes its normal output, the mother may be short on CRH, and less able to deal with stress. Another recent study found that rats are more pain-tolerant after eating placenta. Other investigators are looking at possible immunological benefits of placentophagy.
Drug and cosmetic companies have taken notice of the potential benefits of some placental molecules and discreetly purchase placentas from hospital maternity wards. And the Japanese National Health Insurance covers the use of placental extract to treat liver and skin diseases.
While some argue placentophagy is basically an act of cannibalism, many vegans think it's okay to eat one's own placenta, or a friend's placenta, because no animal suffered for the meat. To someone who doesn't eat meat, going from zero to placenta casserole might prove quite a shock to the system, even if it does make intellectual sense. And anyone considering making a meal of someone else's placenta should be aware of the possibility of imbibing any diseases the mother may have.
Is eating raw placenta mixed into a blueberry smoothie more gross than filling the house with the smell of fried placenta? Would it be better to gnaw on the de-membraned mass au naturel?
And the most important question of all: how does it taste?
Organish, from what I've heard and read. If you like liver, you might like placenta. The liver, like the placenta, is a multitasker with more than 100 known functions. Both organs are exceptionally bloody. But while many liver functions focus on detoxification, the placenta is designed for nourishing. Intuitively, that sounds like better eating, even if viscerally it remains disgusting for many.
For those to whom placenta eating is both intriguing and repulsive, a company called Placenta Benefits will send a representative to your home to cook, dehydrate, pulverize and pack your powdered placenta into inoffensive capsules. Mothering chat rooms are awash with the glowing reports of placenta-pill-popping mamas, including some who hadn't eaten placenta when prior children were born, who report feeling that the pills helped them with the transition from pregnancy to motherhood. Some placenta pill-poppers keep a stash, frozen, for later use when they hit menopause, believing their placenta will help them through that transition as well.
If there are indeed health benefits to placentaphagy it makes sense to spread them out over time, a la placenta pills. But for those who want to chow down, there are many recipes out there for placental stews, pizzas, lasagnas and smoothies. A "Saturday Night Live" skit about "Placenta Helper" was nixed before it saw the light of day, but has lived on in the lore of placentophagy.
Perhaps the most intriguing recipe I found is for a cocktail of blended placenta and V8 that bears a striking resemblance to a Bloody Mary. It makes you wonder where Bloody Marys come from.
If placenta cocktail is indeed the origin of that enigmatically named drink, it would be fitting. Given the fact that many people use alcohol to build up the nerve to do things they might otherwise not do, like eat placenta, a shot of vodka in your liquefied afterbirth might do the trick. And after nine months on the wagon, culminating in one of the most challenging and exhausting experiences of her life, mommy could probably use a bloody drink.