New mothers planning to pack their placenta—that huge wobbling jellyfish of an organ attached to their dear infants after birth—in a doggie bag for later consumption might be thinking twice, after researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report warning that the practice can be dangerous.
According to the case report, a Portland, Oregon, infant in respiratory distress was hospitalized with a strep infection that doctors linked to his mother’s consumption of her placenta, an organ that provides a fetus with oxygen and nutrients and removes waste products, and is usually disposed of as medical waste after delivery. The mother had been taking a regimen of her own dehydrated placenta in pill form, twice daily. Doctors found those pills, prepared by a private company, to be contaminated with GBS bacteria, which likely increased levels of infection in the mother through her intestines and skin, which she then passed on to her infant. The baby recovered following a round of antibiotics and his mother stopped taking the pills.
“The placenta encapsulation process does not per se eradicate infectious pathogens; thus, placenta capsule ingestion should be avoided,” the researchers concluded.
The opinion, though not an official position, is perhaps the firmest stance taken on the issue since placenta consumption became a thing roughly a decade ago. Believers say it wards off postpartum depression, helps with breast milk supply, and gives new moms an energy boost. Though no real science exists to support those claims, instead bolstered by celebrity testimonials and real mom anecdotes, eating your own placenta has gone from fringe to mainstream.
The little scientific study that has been conducted around eating one’s own placenta—known as placentophagy—hasn’t been able to prove either benefit or harm. Research conducted last year—published as part of a larger yet-to-be-released study on overall health benefits of the practice—found placenta pills offered new mothers no more iron than a beef placebo.
No matter. January Jones, Kourtney Kardashian, Katherine Heigl, Gaby Hoffmann, Alicia Silverstone, and Mayim Bialik have all extolled the virtues of noshing on one’s afterbirth. And when a new mom has decided to turn her own organ into lunch, there’s no shortage of ways to get the thing down or people willing to help for a price. You can make your placenta into pills, sure. But why stop there? Why not a smoothie, a taco, chocolates, tea, lasagna, soup? Nothing seems off-limits when it comes to post-birth offal.
And dozens of different companies offering to dehydrate and grind your placenta are just a Google search away. In fact, placenta preparation seems to be moving beyond the realm of doulas and midwives, and has become a growing business opportunity for stay-at-home moms, who are signing up for “certification” through trainings offered by official-sounding—though still completely unregulated—organizations like the Association of Placenta Preparation Arts and the International Placenta & Postpartum Association. For DIYers, there’s always YouTube, which offers seemingly endless videos of people wanting to share their method for devouring the placenta.
But today’s news might have put a pin in the placenta party.
“There are a lot of people who don’t support placentophagy and they’re going to grab onto a single case study and use it as evidence that we’re harming mothers. That was always my fear about people becoming more lax,” said Jodi Selander, a Nevada advocate for placenta consumption who sells encapsulation kits and was among the first to work with local hospitals to allow the release of what was previously considered medical waste. Selander is also to credit for the little research we do have on the practice. She worked with anthropologists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) to learn why women were increasingly interested in placenta consumption and record their experiences, most all of which have been positive. Though estimates are rough, UNLV researchers estimate tens of thousands of mostly white, college-educated, upper middle class women consume their placentas each year.
“When I first started talking about it, people looked at me like I was crazy,” Selander said. “I had a booth at a pregnancy expo and women would literally turn their bellies and walk away from me. Now I go to an expo and every single person has heard about it or is doing it.”
Selander, who says she has encapsulated around 2,000 placentas and trained over 100 people to do the same, said the CDC’s report was the first she had ever heard of such an infection, and guesses that the placenta wasn’t prepared to her standards. (Selander disapproves of the “raw method” of consumption, and advocates that the organ be steamed first.)
“When I created the standards for placenta encapsulation back in 2006, I did so with the mother’s safety in mind. Whether or not independent encapsulators follow those protocols which have been tested and researched is, unfortunately, out of my control,” she said.
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“Now detractors are going to be jumping on this,” Selander said. “It absolutely harms the field as a whole.”