Flash in the Pan 

Tasting the tree of life

The thought of eating a human placenta may not immediately appeal to some readers, but the practice of placentophagy has been around about as long as placentas have. In fact, in some countries it's rather common.

I recently watched more than my share of placenta footage during a section on emergency childbirth in an EMT course I'm taking. The teacher instructed us to save the placenta—sometimes referred to as the "tree of life"—and bring it along with mother and child to the hospital, where it may be useful as evidence in case of subsequent medical complications, or as a source for blood if the baby needs a transfusion.

Also, Teacher said, some women want to keep their placentas.

"Why, Teacher?"

Some mothers want to bury it ritualistically, she explained, and do something like plant a tree over it. And some want to eat their placenta.

The room filled with agonized groans.

"My friend ate her placenta in a blueberry smoothie," said a guy in back.

Again, the question was, "Why?"

Placentovores believe the placenta is a precious item full of nutrients, hormones and other goodies. Eating placenta is believed to help with the tremendous hormonal reprogramming that a woman undergoes after birth. In Chinese medicine, dried placenta is given to new mothers to increase lactation and prevent postpartum depression.

The lactation-enhancing qualities of dried placenta were substantiated by research in the 1950s. More recently, researchers have connected postpartum depression with a lack of corticotropin-releasing hormone, or CRH, a hormone that helps people deal with stress. CRH is normally released by the hypothalamus, but it's also released by the placenta in pregnant women, causing the hypothalamus to ramp down production. After the placenta is delivered and before the hypothalamus resumes its normal output, the mother may be short on CRH, and less able to deal with stress. Another recent study found that rats are more pain-tolerant after eating placenta. Other investigators are looking at possible immunological benefits of placentophagy.

Drug and cosmetic companies have taken notice of the potential benefits of some placental molecules and discreetly purchase placentas from hospital maternity wards. And the Japanese National Health Insurance covers the use of placental extract to treat liver and skin diseases.

While some argue placentophagy is basically an act of cannibalism, many vegans think it's okay to eat one's own placenta, or a friend's placenta, because no animal died for the meat. To someone who doesn't eat meat, going from zero to placenta casserole might prove quite a shock to the system, even if it does make intellectual sense.

  • Photo courtesy of Placenta Benefits

Is eating raw placenta mixed into a blueberry smoothie more gross than filling the house with the smell of fried placenta? Would it be better to gnaw on the de-membraned mass au naturel?

And the most important question of all: How does it taste?

Organish, from what I've heard and read. If you like liver, you might like placenta. The liver, like the placenta, is a multi-tasker with more than 100 known functions. Both organs are exceptionally bloody. But while many liver functions focus on detoxification, the placenta is designed for nourishing. Intuitively, that sounds like better eating, even if viscerally it remains tough to swallow, so to speak.

For those to whom placenta eating is both intriguing and repulsive, a company called Placenta Benefits will send a representative to your home to cook, dehydrate, pulverize and pack your powdered placenta into inoffensive capsules. Mothering chat rooms are awash with the glowing reports of placenta pill popping mamas, including some who hadn't eaten placenta when prior children were born, who report feeling that the pills helped them with the transition from pregnancy to motherhood. Some placenta pill poppers keep a stash, frozen, for later use when they hit menopause, believing their placenta will help them through that transition as well.

If there are indeed health benefits to placentophagy it makes sense to spread them out over time, a la placenta pills. But for those who want to chow down, there are many recipes out there for placental stews, pizzas, lasagnas and smoothies. A "Saturday Night Live" skit about "Placenta Helper" was nixed before it saw the light of day, but has lived on in the lore of placentophagy.

Perhaps the most intriguing recipe I found is for a cocktail of blended placenta and V8 that bears a striking resemblance to a Bloody Mary. It makes you wonder where Bloody Marys come from.

If placenta cocktail is indeed the origin of that enigmatically named drink, it would be fitting. Given the fact that many people use alcohol to build up the nerve to do things they might otherwise not do, like eat placenta, a shot of vodka mixed with the "tree of life" might do the trick. And after nine months on the wagon, culminating in one of the most challenging and exhausting experiences of her life, mommy could probably use a drink.

Ask Ari: Natural curiosity

Q: What's the difference between "organic" and "natural" as food labels?

—Confused Consumer

A: Both words have very different meanings, depending on the context. In chemistry terms, many of the pesticides and herbicides prohibited under organic certification are, technically speaking, organic molecules—which merely means they are carbon-based. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic is an evolving definition originally based on the kinds of foods grown on small, diverse farms that don't use chemicals. Big ag wanted in on the lucrative organic market, so the USDA certification system was created to codify the label. While certified organic farms can now be vast monocultures worked by underpaid immigrants, they still must adhere to basic sustainable agriculture principles like having a soil building program, not using agrichemicals, not confining livestock and, more recently, allowing livestock access to pasture.

The "natural" label, on the other hand, mandates little in the way of how the food is raised, and only regulates how it's processed. Thus, an animal raised in confinement, that was routinely dosed with antibiotics for non-therapeutic reasons, and regularly ate another animal's fecal material in its food, could still be labeled "natural" as long as the flesh isn't processed with chemicals after the animal is slaughtered. That's not exactly what most people have in mind when they think of "natural" food. Ironically, a recent survey found many consumers choose "natural" over "organic," either because they think it's more "natural," or because they think it's less expensive, neither of which tend to be true.

Of course, the dictionary definition of natural: "present in or produced by nature," is a bit squirrelly. What isn't ultimately produced by nature? Everything, thus, could be considered natural, including corn that was genetically engineered to produce organic chemicals.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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