What is the placenta and what does it do?
The placenta is attached to your uterus and has a complex network of tissue and blood vessels that allows for exchange of nutrients and oxygen between mom and baby. It clears waste products and provides a selective barrier to prevent certain harmful substances from reaching your developing baby.
Why has this practice become popular?
The practice among animals especially mammals seems to be fairly common and while the exact reasons unknown, scientists suspect that one major reason may be to avoid having a bloody temptation to predators next to the mother and baby. The mammalian placenta was consumed raw and immediately after giving birth. However, in historical/anthropological studies of humans, the practice is rare, and it has only more recently become common as there have been claims that placentophagy decreases postpartum depression, increases energy, decreases post-delivery pain and increases milk production.
So are the benefits to placentophagy real?
In 2015 researchers at Northwestern University School of Medicine reviewed 10 published studies on the practice, and they found no data to show that consuming the placenta, whether raw, cooked, or encapsulated provided any protection against postpartum depression, decreased post delivery pain, increased energy, or increased milk production. And of course, given the timing of bleeding with delivery, unless you’re taking a fork and knife to the placenta immediately after delivery, it is unlikely to help reduce postpartum bleeding as the majority of postpartum bleeding occurs within the first few minutes following delivery.
There are also few studies as to what nutrients or harmful materials (such as mercury) the placenta may contain. Since its primary purpose is to filter anything harmful from the baby’s blood supply, one would assume that these chemicals would collect in the placenta. I would also advise caution in consuming the placenta if there has been any intrauterine infection, meconium (baby poop), preeclampsia or other placental abnormality. Additionally, while the placenta contains iron and hormones such as progesterone, once the placenta is cooked, dehydrated or processed for consumption, it is questionable as to whether any nutritional value remains.
Still, whether to eat the placenta or not remains a personal decision, and if it is something a woman is interested in doing, she should discuss her choice with her provider to ensure it is not disposed of or placed in formalin. After all, the recipe for placenta chili begins in the hospital :)