If you're about to bring a new life into this world and were thinking about turning its thick, bloody, in utero life support machine into a tablet to knock back with your cod liver oils and multi-vitamins, your plans might be buggered, friend.
A leading UK company has been prevented from processing raw placentas for new mothers to eat. From raw placenta smoothies to placenta encapsulation, placenta essence (to dab behind the ears like a more robust patchouli?), and placenta tincture, the Watford-based Independent Placenta Encapsulation Network (IPEN) offers it all.
A judge has ruled, though, that there's a significant risk of placentas being contaminated with staphylococcus aureus—apparently present in ten percent of women's vaginas—and enough to halt, at least for the time being, the processing of placentas in their raw state. The company had been processing placenta for two and a half years before the council gave two emergency prohibition notices and, while this apparently isn't the end for the company, it does raise the question of whether eating the thing is actually worth it.
I am yet to birth a child, so I have no idea whether I'd eat its placenta. I haven't let the thought marinate enough. But while I might scoff at the idea of people wanting to turn placentas into tablets, it's far too easy to be dismissive about these things and to label the women who choose to do so as gullible hippies. As someone who hasn't experienced the abject fear that impending motherhood brings, who am I to say what I'll believe is good for me in those first, vulnerable moments? My mum said that when she and my dad first laid me in my hospital cot, they both looked at each other—two little babies themselves—and said, "What the fuck do we do?"
My mum was 22-years-old and relied on the guidance of a nurse for breast-feeding and eating the right things while I fed. Apparently, new mothers can glean myriad physiological benefits from eating placenta—the prevention of hemorrhage, hormonal regulation, increased energy, reduced risk of postpartum depression, and increased breast milk production, just to name a few. "Don't be ridiculous," my mum said over text message when I asked her if she considered eating her placenta after I was born. "I'm not in Hollywood, darling!" I don't really know what she means—I rarely do—but with so many health-giving promises, why wouldn't you partake in placentophagia?
IPEN say on their website that "enjoying a raw placenta smoothie made with fresh organic berry fruits as soon as possible after birth is the most natural way of consuming the placenta." I asked a friend of mine—a midwife—who is about to give birth about the subject. She almost put the phone down on me. "Why the fuck would I do that?" she honked. "No!"
Why not? Because it would be like eating part of your own body?
"Again, no. Placental tissue is mostly derived from the egg when it's fertilized, and carries the embryo's genome."
"So it would be cannibalism if anything. It will have fed my baby, and has therefore served its purpose. As a human being, I have access to enough iron-rich foods that I don't have to eat it. We have evolved beyond the point of needing to eat our placentas like some animals do."
I wasn't about to argue with a woman five days over her due date, who said she was "wobbling like a fucking weeble" while I was talking to her. But I'm still interested.
The internet teems with pro-placenta eating stories and chirpy accounts of the wild energy injection it can bring (often written in the same kind of tone as UFO sighting forums), but what my friend says seems to make sense. Research into placentophagia is still in its infancy, and although it is customary in some countries to prepare the placenta for consumption by the mother, we have almost certainly evolved to a level where another food source can give just as much of a nutrient injection with much less faff. There just isn't enough empirical evidence to suggest it's really worth it.
Maybe it's more of a spiritual thing, though. A friend of mine—one of VICE's very own columnists, in fact—has kept her daughter's placenta in her freezer since she was born. Nearly three years on, it's still sitting in its plastic bag, only to be wheeled out at parties so everyone can have a good sniff (it smells as you'd expect: like frozen meat). Who knows if she'll ever eat it? Probably not. But the notion of hanging onto the thing that tangibly connected you with your baby is heavy with romance. And to eat that thing, to join up the circle, is about as romantic as it gets, isn't it?
I'm imagining holding my future newborn now. He or she is hot, kicking, bright pink, and pulsing with a heartbeat entirely independent of mine. The idea of wanting to consume part of what once made us one doesn't seem so weird. It's nice. A bit witchy. Just don't put it in a fucking smoothie.