For those of you unfamiliar with the function of this special lady-organ, the placenta, derived from the Latin word for “cake,” is a member of the essential-to-developing-fetuses trifecta along with the umbilical cord and the amniotic sac. Attached to the uterine wall where it removes waste while supplying both oxygen and nutrients to the fetus, most female mammals, marsupials excluded, develop placentas during pregnancy. The placenta is expelled from the body, human or otherwise, via the birth canal shortly after (usually 15 minutes or so) a baby makes its grand debut during what’s known as the third stage of labor. Surprise! Here comes something else!
Now here’s where things may get uncomfortable for some of you. Many, but not all, animals consume the placenta after their offspring is birthed and accounted for in an act called placentophagy. Thought to provide the postpartum momma with essential nutrients while also hiding the scent of fresh prey from predators lurking around, placentophagy is a commonplace practice in the wild.
And in the not-so-wild
I had my first encounter with placenta consumption at around 12 years old when a neighbor invited my family over to witness the miracle of kitty birth in her garage. Having never seen a preggers cat birth a litter, it was a memorable and fluid-y experience topped of with a placentophagic grand finale. At that moment, witnessing feline placentophagy was more unsettling than anything — I came to see cute baby kitties, not an exhausted mother cat devour a bloody organ that had just plopped out of her body — so my father, being the mature fellow that he is, tried to make light of the situation by unleashing an arsenal of bad “placenta helper” references.
Little did I know at the time, my dad’s afterbirth-as-cuisine jokes were rooted in reality. Placentophagy, an act that’s both the butt of many hippie jokes and a material-provider for horror maestro David Cronenberg, is, yes, practiced by humans. That said, how exactly the placenta is disposed of varies from culture to culture. Following ancient tradition, many cultures bury the disposable organ in a sacred spot deep in the ground and plant a tree over it as it represents the symbolic relationship between humans and the earth. Placenta burial is also thought to ensure the health of both the newborn and the mother. Western cultures typically take a less reverent route, incineration, although more adventurous and open-minded new mommas request that the hospital save it (this has proven controversial in some cases) so that they can take it home and incorporate it into a hearty lasagna, meatloaf, casserole or spaghetti bolognaise. Yum-o?
The internet is filled with afterbirth recipes and preparation techniques. Joel Stein penned a humorous essay for Time on his own experiences with placentophagy, opening with the line: “There is so much you can't know about your spouse when you get married, like that one day she will want to eat her placenta.” Stein, who describes himself as squeamish, describes the tastes-like-liver organ as “what your liver would look like if it got into an accident on the autobahn with one of those aliens from ‘Mars Attacks!’ and their bloody carcasses threw jellyfish at each other.” Delicious!
So now the big question: Why? Those who eat human placenta, either freeze-dried and ground into supplements or incorporated into a meal as a beef replacement, do so because it’s believed (believed being the key word here) that consuming the organ staves off postpartum depression, balances hormones and helps new mothers produce milk. It’s also filled with nutrients and vitamins like iron and vitamin B-12. Some devout vegetarians will even make an exception for a placenta-based meal. As Jennifer Mayer of Brooklyn Placenta Services tells New York Magazine: “They’re made by your body, for your body. Why wouldn’t you want to try?”
What science says
Although placentophagy does have its fair share of boosters, until recently solid scientific studies detailing the nutritional benefits of noshing on roast human afterbirth were minimal to nonexistent.
Researchers at Oregon State University and the University of Nevada found that mothers who consumed the placenta passed on no harm to their newborn babies. For the 2018 study, published in the journal Birth, researchers reviewed more than 23,000 birth records to document whether infants born to mothers who practiced placentophagy had more hospitalizations, illnesses or deaths than those whose mothers didn't touch the placenta.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that placentophagy could put infants at risk of serious bacterial infections. But the authors of this new study point out that the CDC report was based on a single case study.
So there you go. My support goes out to all those new mothers out there who do, for one reason or another, decide to eat their own afterbirth despite the lack of scientific studies surrounding the practice. Just make sure not to invite me over for dinner, OK?
Editor's note: This story was originally published in February 2012 and has been updated with new information.