When it comes to mothers consuming their placentas, there are strong opinions on both sides of the fence. So is the placenta just a waste by-product of birth, or should it be seen as the key to a nutrition-packed feast?
What is the placenta for?
The placenta, which is sometimes called the ‘after birth’ is an organ attached to the womb lining. It grows after conception and, during the course of pregnancy, it passes oxygen, nutrients and hormones from the mother’s blood supply, via the umbilical cord, to the baby. Waste products from the baby’s body, such as carbon dioxide, are transported out to the placenta and the placenta also gives some protection against bacterial infections from the mother.
After a baby is born, the placenta is no longer needed and the mother will ‘deliver’ it, or during a Caesarean section, the doctor lifts out the placenta. Midwives check the placenta is complete to ensure no risks to the mother.
Wasted or wanted?
In many cases, the placenta is disposed of after the birth. However, there appears to be growing interest in saving the placenta and consuming it, as it has been suggested that there may be some benefits to the mother. Although there are records of this practice through history, with dried placenta being used in Chinese medicine, precise numbers are not known. What is clear is that the number of people interested in ‘placentophagy’, literally ‘eating the placenta’ has increased in the last decade.
Are there any benefits (or dangers) from eating the placenta?
While there have not yet been any controlled trials to show whether eating the placenta gives any nutritional or health benefits, there is widespread anecdotal support for the practice of placentophagy.
Eating the placenta is purported to boost energy levels, help with breast milk quality, as well as helping hormonal balance, which can lower risk of postnatal depression, post-delivery pain, insomnia, promote skin elasticity, replenish iron stores and help with baby bonding. That is some list! However appealing it may seem, there is scant evidence, and a review of ten studies found that there was no data to support the claims, nor were there any studies looking at the risks.
Women are rightly cautious about what they eat and drink during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, but it is worth noting that when it comes to consuming a placenta there is a lack of evidence of its benefits and potential dangers.
How is placenta consumed?
A number of preparations for the placenta have been reported. These include: putting a chunk of raw placenta onto the gum; using the fresh raw placenta to make a ‘smoothie’ with fruits; cooking the fresh placenta, e.g. stir frying, in a similar way to using fresh meat or making a pâté. Alternatively, the placenta may be dried and made into capsules, or soaked in alcohol to make a tincture.
The future of placentophagy
In the UK, there are a small number of companies that offer the means to prepare placenta pills or smoothies, however, there have been some concerns, from trading standards, about the safety of the practice, citing contamination with bacteria during delivery as a possible risk, and unless it’s stored properly, like all fresh foodstuffs, placentas can go ‘off’.
While there is no consensus among midwives about eating placenta, and mothers who wish to keep the placenta could potentially be supported in their decision, the current lack of credible research on the health benefits means that the jury is still out on this matter.
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This article was published on 23 January 2016. Dr Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and public health nutritionist specialising in infant and toddler nutrition with over 20 years’ experience.
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