The air in Laura Curtis’ kitchen is thick with the iron-rich smell of placenta.
The organ, an unusually large specimen, has been steaming atop a pot of boiling water, ginger and lemon and has turned an unappetizing gray. But soon the "mutant hamburger," as Curtis describes it, will be sliced, dehydrated, ground into a powder and capsulized for … you guessed it, human consumption.
Human consumption of placentas is a modern practice that appears to have arisen with the home-birthing movement. Popularized by celebrities such as “Mad Men” star January Jones and Kim Kardashian, it is capturing the imagination of mainstream America.
Some women freeze it and add it to smoothies. Others roast theirs, adding it to soups and spaghetti bolognese. Most pay to have it encapsulated.
Human placentophagia, saving your placenta after birth and eating it, is not a nature-loving hippie thing, a rite of passage for primitive cultures, or a spooky Salem Society ritual. It’s happening in Utah and elsewhere across the country, and with growing frequency.
It’s a practice with no anthropological precedent, promoted by a chorus of moms swearing by its health benefits — despite a scarcity of research. And it has birthed a cottage industry of placenta preparers.
Utah hospitals don’t keep track of how many moms ask to have their placentas packaged and put on ice instead of leaving them for incineration. University Hospital anecdotally pegs the figure at about 5 percent to 10 percent of its deliveries. Intermountain Medical Center gets a couple of requests each month.
"But it seems to be trending upward," said Bernice Tenort, nurse manager of University Hospital’s labor and delivery ward.
‘There’s a demand’ » For many, the thought of cannibalizing something expelled from your own body triggers a gag reflex. The placenta contains genetic material from the mother, the father and the baby.
But the practice has caught on among mostly white, married, middle-class, college-educated women, most of whom report positive experiences, according to a recent study in the journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition. It’s also popular among women who choose to deliver their babies at home, the study found.
Because the organ passes essential nutrients from mother to baby and contains iron and helpful postpartum hormones, such as progesterone and oxytocin, it’s assumed that ingesting it will confer benefits.
Parenting blogs and home-birthing websites assert it can decrease postpartum bleeding, help your uterus shrink, enrich your milk supply and prevent the baby blues.
"There are a lot of things we do to improve our health which haven’t been studied and proven by medical science, and yet we know they work," said Curtis, a hypnobirthing instructor and owner of Utah’s largest placenta encapsulator, PlacentaWise in Lindon.
"You can walk into any health-food store and find yourself surrounded by people who are taking their health into their own hands through supplements and herbs," she said. "... Placenta capsules are such a supplement."
Curtis learned how to encapsulate while training to become a certified doula instructor.
"It was odd and foreign to me and seemed icky and gross," she said. "I don’t even touch meat. I’m vegan."
But patient testimonials persuaded her to give it a try. "There’s a demand for this service and a need for people doing it safely," said Curtis, who follows food handling and occupational safety protocols.
A bonding treat? » None of this is backed by science. There have been a handful of observational human studies dating back to the early 1900s and animal studies — most, but not all, mammals eat their placenta — but no randomized trials.
"There are lots of things animals do that humans shouldn’t do," said Mark Kristal, a psychologist in the behavioral neuroscience program at University at Buffalo.
There are plenty of theories as to why animals eat their placentas: to replace depleted nutrients or safeguard the nest from hungry predators.Next Page >
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