Placenta Stew: PseudoScience on the Menu

Eating a placenta to prevent postpartum depression?

I know, as if mothers haven't suffered enough.  Maybe you've been lucky to avoid the new gastronomic fad and the slideshow in New York Magazine last summer (The Placenta Cookbook, August, 2011).  Oh there's no scientific evidence, only a mish-mash of strewn-together studies and the attendant speculation about nutrients and myriad health benefits. So of course there's an entire eating afterbirth empire.  As for the actual how-to, someone will actually take it away and return it to you in capsule form.  Or you could find a recipe online and cook it at home between napping and breastfeeding.  I couldn't help but write about it all in my column over at Psychology Today - Placenta Stew with a Side of Pseudo-Science.  Read and tell me if you think I've been overly critical as some commenters seemed to think. 

The responses went something like this:

You work for the pharmaceutical industry.

Many of you here know I question the millions of kids (and adults) on ADHD meds. I'm no friend of Big Pharma but anti-depressants have helped some women struggling with pospartum depression.  It's not a carefully constructed facade to yield huge profits and government kick-backs.  Do the drugs have side effects? Absolutely.  Do they sometimes not help?  Absolutely. Do we have other methods of dealing with post-partum depression that don't involve chemicals or eating bodily organs.  Absolutely.

By the way, I readily criticize psychiatrists, psychologists in addition to various public health authorities, government agencies, researchers, pediatricians, journalists, media organizations, celebrities and anyone else who presents specious health claims.

You are narrow-minded, especially when it comes to eating placentas.

I'm a mostly vegetarian (strict before pregnancy, parenthood) married to an enthusiastic carnivore.  I'm open-minded enough to let my kids make their own choices about whether they want to eat meat so in compromise with my husband I sometime cook meat for them even though personally, I find meat, raw or often cooked quite unpalatable. 

PS I'm not an evangelical vegetarian and I have no desire to tell people what they should put on the dinner table or down their throats. 

I am narrow-minded when it comes to the misuse of scientific evidence especially when it comes to life-threatening illnesses like depression.  Make no mistake, more than the thought of eating my body part here's what irritates me - the presentation of exceptionally thin or flawed evidence as proof placentas prevents postpartum depression, a very serious, very complicated condition.  Women experiencing depression shouldn't have to be subject to what amounts to organic quackery.      

You are illogical because eating placenta is no different from eating other flesh, meat, etc.  Eating placentae is no less logical than eating other meat.

Someone raised a good point by asking if there's any reason to be more opposed to eating placenta than any other meat. I'm routinely put off by meat and fish but I'd imagine there are numerous meat lovers also disgusted by the placenta.  Part of the stigma surely comes from the idea of eating part of one's own body. I'd no more eat my placenta than any other pieces that occasionally fall off (i.e. finger nails, scabs). 

Is it logical to be more disgusted by eating a placenta than other flesh?  Put aside the disgust for a moment because that fills entire dissertations but I think the more valid question concerns the logic of eating meat versus placenta.

Does it sound logical to eat placentae if there's no good information of either its benefits or its safety?  How about a pregnant and/or breastfeeding woman? Is it logical to eat flesh that hasn't been subject to food industry regulations? That goes for road kill too. The last I checked the FDA wasn't monitoring delivery rooms (or country roads) but I could be remiss.  I have no idea how safe it is to eat afterbirth, especially as cooked and prepared in one's home - nor has there been any study to verify its safety.  So obviously there are some crucial differences between eating afterbirth and eating meats found in the deli counter or the restaurant kitchen. 

Eating placentas at this point does not sound logical to me but then again a lot of our decisions are not entirely logical as Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated all too well.

I realize disgust has been used to stigmatize groups for millenia.  Although feeling disgust is not "logical," it is a profoundly human reaction.  And yes though I am personally disgusted by the thought of eating placentae (and meat) I object not to the eating itelf but the the shifty evidence used to claim it prevents serious illness. Evolutionary psychologists probably have quite a bit to say about the logic of disgust. Personally I think it's pretty reasonable to not put something in your mouth that disgusts you even though the disgust itself might not be rational.

You value Prozac Nation over tribal culture.

I did refer to the 2000 memoir "Prozac Nation" widely cited as evidence of profligate pill-popping.  If that sounds flattering to the United States and the field of mental health here than we're in a different book club.  In fact I think placentophagy (eating placentas) makes a lot more sense in tribal cultures where it seems to be a tradition of sorts at least according to Wikipedia. Otherwise I make no claims about the value of one culture over another. 
Enough said?  Who's hungry!


Fleur said...

Good post.

I read about placenta encapsulation recently, and it sounded concerning to me, since there was no regulation. How would you know if the person encapsulating it had handled it properly, or if they were just handing you some sort of placebo?

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Fleur! C'est vrai, you wouldn't know if it were a placebo or contaminated. It reminds me of the one-man sperm bank, the guy donating his sperm over the internet.

CheckeredFoxglove said...

I've always conceptualized placentas as part of the BABY's body, not the mother's. To me, this changes the question entirely. Would I eat my own body part? Eh, not if I could avoid it. Would I eat my baby's body part? HELL TO THE NO. Not even if it was proven to prevent PPD.

I'd like to respond to the safety issue, though. Given the way we process meat these days, deli counter and restaurant meat is not necessarily that clean. In the case of chicken*, most of it is contaminated with salmonella, because the defeathered chicken carcasses are dumped in water to mix around with each other, so if one of them has salmonella, all of them do. I'd actually be more confident in the cleanliness of a placenta than a slab of supermarket butcher counter meat. The placenta came out of your completely clean uterus into a clean-enough-for-a-newborn bed, and then was presumably cooked. The whole point of cooking is to kill microbes, right? So even if the house/hospital wasn't clean, the stovetop or dehydrator should do the trick. I very much doubt placenta-eating is any less sanitary than regular meat-eating.

These people you're countering seem to be attacking you over the wrong issue, here. Women who want to eat their baby's placenta because it has such-and-so nutritional value or whatever are probably fine. But women who want to cure their PPD by way of placentophagy might be sucking down snake oil, and they need to know that. Doesn't mean it's imperative they don't try it. Just that they need a backup plan if they do.

*this is from either Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore's Dilemma; I read them both at the same time, so I don't remember which.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Howdy GFGlove,

So I assume you're a vegetarian now, no? Read those too.

Yes, my primary objection is the citation of very flawed, old or irrelevant scientific evidence that eating placentas, anyone's, provides health benefits at best - let alone the unknown safety.