Friday, March 30, 2012

Human Placentophagy - Seriously?

Warning: this blog is not for squeamish or humorless folk.

Actress January Jones has recently publicly discussed the benefits of eating her own placenta after the birth of her son, putting a face on an increasingly popular fad in America. Although pictures of January Jones depict her looking marvelous post-partum, I think her appearance has more to do with genetics, a personal trainer and Photoshop rather than a placenta. Apparently, there are placenta recipes and placenta encapsulation specialists who formulate the organ into capsules taken like a vitamin. The placenta handling and encapsulation business is booming.

The arguments in support of the practice of human placentophagy (placenta consumption) stem mainly around the idea that since all mammals and a few reptiles eat the placentas of their newborn babies, it is natural and therefore better for you, right? The nutrition one gains from a placenta supposedly helps the mother recover more quickly and wards off post-partum depression. Joel Stein wrote a very entertaining article, Afterbirth: It's What's For Dinnner about his wife's personal experience with placentophagia after the birth of their child. Nancy Redd, a writer for the New York Times, reported that she experienced very negative side effects after trying her placenta.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was in awe of the ability of a woman’s body to create an organ that would support her fetus. The placenta is the link between the mother and child, filtering nutrition and excrement (yes, that too) until it is time for him to leave the womb and live as an independent being. I was curious after my baby was born to see what a placenta actually looked like and was shown a bloody organ about the size of a large steak.  Not once did I feel an overwhelming urge to try it, not even with A-1 Sauce.

Now that I’ve delivered countless Maine Coon kittens and one foal, I look at the birthing process more pragmatically. I know some cat breeders who don’t allow the mother cat to eat the placenta for fear of it making her (the cat) sick. Others believe that eating the placenta provides the mother with extra nutrition and stimulates milk production.

I’ve noticed a few things over the years which relate to cats so I’ll just liberally generalize based upon my personal area of expertise. One is, not all cats and their placentas are equal. Some queens (a breeding female cat) will swallow the placenta like an oyster. Some placentas are tough, requiring the mother to gnaw on it endlessly while the wet kitten is ignored. Some new moms prefer to just lick the placenta clean, then leave it.

A couple of things to keep in mind with cats and other animals that deliver multiples; usually one birth quickly follows another so clean up has to be efficient. If the placenta isn’t taken care of before the next baby arrives, it’ll just have to wait. After delivering several kittens and consuming a placenta for each one, a queen gets full and very tired. She welcomes help cleaning up and drying her kittens. I usually follow the mother’s lead. If too much time is spent on the placenta or she shows no interest in it, I’ll start removing them for her so she’ll focus on her kitten.  I normally dispose of placentas along with the used bedding in the trash, but I've been known to flush them down the toilet too.

I think the instinct to eat a placenta is not only for a carnivore’s easy food source, but for hygiene. Herd animals whose babies are up and running within hours may have less of a need to consume their placenta, but animals whose young are helpless at birth must stay near the nest for protection and warmth.

Most domestic cats don’t like to leave their new kittens at all, so I usually put food and water in the birthing cage to make it easier for the mother. Likewise, if the mother cat has a choice, she will not use a litter box anywhere near her brood. Birth and all the fluids that go with it have a certain odor that is bound to attract predators. By cleaning up all signs of birth and kitten excrement, the new babies have a better chance of survival. That’s also why many cats move their kittens, to get them away from the birth aroma. I’ve seen new moms fastidiously lick the wet bedding in an effort to clean up the evidence. She is relieved when I remove the wet, disposable puppy pads and replace them with clean cotton bedding. Cleanliness is survival in the wild, an instinct the domestic animal still possesses.

A Maine Coon cat’s placenta is about the size of a large McNugget and looks like a piece of raw meat. I’ve often joked about breading and sautéing placentas, but I don’t eat red meat. I suppose if I were more enterprising, I could use my feline source and market my own magic placenta pills.

So with all the Hollywood hoopla about doing the natural thing and eating one’s own placenta, I have to say, this is just gross. Having the placenta steamed, dried and put into capsules may look more appetizing than grilling out, but it all seems like a scam to me. If you have a healthy diet, a placenta pill isn’t going to really make a difference. Post-partum depression?  See your doctor, please.  Even in third world countries, they’re not so hungry that placentophagy is an option and just bury it. The practice is not as common in most cultures as some would have you believe, but it has been promoted by Chinese medicine. Hey, don’t the Chinese also eat goat genitalia, monkey brains, dogs and cats? I found a huge assortment of exotic (read "disgusting") food sources native to China on the internet, so it must be true.

If a human mom really wants to emulate nature by eating her placenta, I think she should take it the rest of the way. Mother cats also eat the excrement of their newborn babies. It’s just another way of recycling really. Go for it Mrs. Jones.

Olivia with her Oscar Litter at one day old


  1. I’ve often joked about breading and sautéing placentas, but I don’t eat red meat.

    Once again your vegetarianism has saved you. But wait! Didn't you turn to vegetarianism after your children were born?

  2. Yuuuk!!! Some of us are too "old school" for such new-fangled fads! - Aunt C.