University of Buffalo psychology professor Mark Kristal has been studying placentophagia—the act of eating one's placenta after childbirth—for more than four decades. Even he doesn't know why most humans don't eat placenta like many of our fellow mammals—or why some outliers among us do. "People will do anything," Kristal said in support of his latest study, which attempts to get to the bottom of human participation in the eating of afterbirth.
No human culture regularly ingests placenta. But Kristal notes that a comprehensive 1980 anthropological survey found that many cultures expressed a taboo against the practice, suggesting that placenta consumption is not entirely outside the realm of human experience. (After all, writes Kristal, "a taboo against eating rocks is unnecessary"). A common reaction to placentophagia found in that survey was this: "animals do that, we are not animals, therefore we should not do that." (Test your own level of revulsion by checking out this photograph of a goat eating a placenta).
But Kristal says that some members of counter-cultures view eating placenta differently: Their feeling is that "animals do that, we are animals, therefore we should do that." Kristal notes that some hippie communes were known for "cooking up a human placenta stew for all to share." Actress January Jones recently ate her own placenta. New York Times blogger Nancy Redd ate hers, too: "As a first-time pregnant lady living in crunchy Santa Monica," she explained, "next to a raw food restaurant and a seemingly oxymoronic homeopathic pharmacy, hiring a so-called celebrity placenta processor seemed to make sense." Redd later regretted it after the pills filled her with "tears and rage."
On the other hand, "placenta encapsulator" Amy Borrelli claims that eating placenta alleviates depression and anemia and encourages lactation. And the culinary possibilities are endless! GOOD community manager Hillary Newman recently attended a brunch where a doula showed up from work casually carting a fresh placenta (pictured), a handle of vodka, and a food dehydrator, which she planned to use to cook up placenta-infused vodka and crushed-up placenta pills for her client.
Does eating your placenta actually do anything, good or bad? No one really knows. Kristal notes one 1950s Czech study that fed some women freeze-dried placenta, and others beef, in an attempt to discern whether placenta ingestion improved lactation (it did, the study claimed). But for the most part, "subjecting participants to placentophagia" is not practically possible. First, you have to get people to eat placentas, and second, you have to somehow guard against the placenta placebo effect—and in the high-pressure days following childbirth, that feeling could be strong. Scientists can't just sub in lab rats, either—rats and other typical lab animals eat placenta after childbirth on the regular, and "preventing this ingestion is ... impossible."
Until science catches up with crunchy new moms, why humans do or do not eat placentas will remain an existential question. Why does anyone do anything? Or as Kristal puts it: "someone in the past, present, or future, has done, is doing, or will do, anything conceivable to the human mind."