In 1998 Chanel 4 was was reprimanded by the broadcasting standards commission for a program in which a TV chef helped a new mother cook up placenta pate to serve to party guests. At the time it was judged to be a taboo and considered "disagreeable to many".
Things have changed a lot since 1998.
In 2012, when I was pregnant with MissM there were discussions on placenta consumption on many of the parenting chat forums, there were even fliers for a placenta encapsulation service in the waiting room of my hospital midwife clinic. It's certainly not common practice still. But it does seem to be growing in popularity and acceptance, egged on by the general trend to assume anything "natural" must be healthy and by a whole host of claims about the benefits.
But do those claims stack up?
Most advocates of the practice seem to base their assertions on the stories of those who believe it has helped them. They are usually something like this: "I felt awful after my first baby and developed post natal depression, after my second I took placenta pills/ smoothies etc. and everything was much better so the placenta must have worked." Well it might have, but every pregnancy, birth and postnatal period is unique. Second time around things may have been better wherever the placenta ended up.
Proper scientific evidence for the benefits of placentaphagy are harder to find. In fact a recent review of ten studies couldn't find any suggestion that the practice improved any health outcomes at all. The study has had a fair bit of media coverage so I'm not going to go into it in depth, I've also not yet read the full paper. But I do want to share a few other thoughts on the subject.
Having seen the fliers in that waiting room in 2012 I'd been interested enough to do a bit of research. I'd assumed that eating your afterbirth was a bit of a fad and rather pointless if you have plenty of other good food. But I'd also had a pretty difficult postnatal period last time and was desperate to avoid the same thing happening again. So, as this was being promoted in a prestigious NHS hospital perhaps there was more to it than I'd realised?
It turns out there was a lot I didn't know, but it only made me less inclined to sign up and chow down.
There are apparently a range of benefits to eating your placenta including better recovery from childbirth, less fatigue, less postnatal depression and easier breast feeding according to at least one website it will also "tonify Qi, life energy" (er ok). But how all this is achieved is a little vague.
Certainly it seems likely that there is a lot of iron in a human placenta and anemia is common in new mums but there is also a lot of iron in a jolly good rare steak with a side of creamed spinach and the latter is likely to be considerably more pleasant to consume. Especially after months of pregnancy food restrictions. It'll also be considerably cheaper than placenta pills but i'll come back to that.
Iron, however, doesn't answer everything and another explanation promoted by many websites offering placenta services is stem cells. Now this I do know a bit about. The microbiome seems to be the new next best thing in medical research at the moment, but about a decade ago it was stem cells. These rare, primitive cells hold amazing regenerative potential and were once touted at the cure for almost everything. They are also, certainly, found in cord blood from the placenta. I've personally isolated stem cells from cord blood many many times and at certain hospitals you can donate these precious cells to be banked and used like a bone marrow transplant (you can also pay to bank them privately but that's a whole other blog post!). However, there is absolutely no evidence that eating stem cells would do you any good whatsoever. I'm probably more aware than most of the power and fragility of these cells. There is no way you could cook them, dry them and leave them wrapped in a plastic capsules for days or weeks and expect them to still be alive and capable of doing anything at all.
What's the harm though?
Ok, so rationally, it's unlikely that eating your placenta will do anything at all, but if people want to do it that's their choice right? What's the harm?
Well, actually we don't know. Various food standards bodies have raised concerns about the safety of placenta products. Often they are prepared at home by those selling their services and so there is little assurance that what is essentially a large piece of meat, has been handled and stored safely. The placenta, even if it were as magical as some claim, is not immune to bacterial contamination. In fact it probably comes with a good dose of bacteria and viruses from the start.
Then there is the thing that really disturbed me. In researching this post I came across a few people selling not just placenta smoothies and capsules but also homeopathic placenta remedies. If the actual placenta does nothing then an extreme homeopathic dilution of some water that once contained some placenta is hardly likely to work either and I've seen absolutely no evidence for it being beneficial. Yet even more bold claims are made for this preparation. Not only will it apparently ease depression and anxiety in the mother it will also help babies with colic, teething and "illness".
No, it absolutely will not help an ill child. This actually makes me angry because not only will it not help at all it could also delay the parent from seeking actual medical help it could be responsible needless pain, suffering and harm as the parent relies on the remedy they were told would work. If you're going to sell something and say it helps ill children, you should bloody well have some evidence that it does. If not. Back the hell off.
In fact if you're going to sell anything on the basis of health claims you really should have some decent evidence (and an awareness of basic biology that seems very lacking in many who sells placenta products). If a big pharmaceutical company started selling drugs based on a few anecdotes and stuff they read on the internet, without even doing any safety testing then there would be outcries and lawsuits and rightfully so. So why is it ok for those selling placenta services?
I don't think that there are any big corporations involved (yet) and I'm inclined to believe that all of the individuals selling their wares are doing so because they genuinely believe it will help. But that's not a good enough excuse. Pregnancy is an expensive and often vulnerable and anxious time. Placenta encapsulation costs around £150. Money that many could ill afford but might be persuaded to part with by the many grand claims made.
There seems to be no end to the products and services offered to pregnant and new mums these days. We all want to do the very best for our children and are prepared to make physical and financal sacrifices to achieve that. Placenta services play to and in some cases prey on this, offering no real benefits and as yet unknown risks.
If you are concerned about depression, fatigue, breastfeeding etc. don't waste your money on placenta pills and smoothies. There is sadly no easy, natural quick fix to any of those issues. Talk to your doctor or midwife instead. Fight your corner if you have to, but make sure you get something that will really help. Not plastic coated wishful thinking.