‘Some women have mixed it into a smoothie or even taken it raw to tap into its powerful effects’
As far back as 2014, Durban placenta specialist Melissa Jacobs was telling Radio 702 listeners: ‘ Placenta consumption and encapsulation is becoming popular in South Africa after the re-emergence of this service in the US, Canada and the UK.’ Citing the local study Post-Birth Rituals: Ethics and the Law, she said that at least 10% of South African mothers wished to take their placentas home – ‘either for consumption or for post-birth rituals’.
‘With the availability of placenta encapsulation, we estimate this percentage to rise,’ Melissa said – a prediction proved accurate by the establishment last year of what presumably was by then a necessary regulatory body: the Placenta Encapsulation Association of South Africa.
Locally, the practice is more mainstream than you might imagine (encapsulation is the preferred means of ingestion) – though those deliberating between smoothies, entrées, capsules or sweet tru e treats in Bryanston, like 36-year-old Chloe*, a commercial and maritime attorney, are doing so far more quietly than their famous counterparts in Beverly Hills.
‘I swear by placenta encapsulation though I don’t talk about it openly. People think you’re already a bit of a ake when they hear you’re having a home birth,’ says Chloe, who su ered from such extreme postnatal depression after the birth of her rst child that she was willing ‘to try anything’ when it came to her second delivery. ‘It’s not the fad people might think – it’s been a feature of traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. It has a history. I’ve no doubt it works and I’d recommend it,’ she says. This ‘history’ may bestow a good deal of credibility on placenta consumption, but it’s also just the starting point of increasingly concerned scienti c contention.
According to Jennifer Gunter, an obstetrician gynaecologist and author of The Preemie Primer, placentophagia is missing not only from our science but also ‘our history as humans’. ‘Not one article exists in the medical literature about the bene ts or risks of placenta eating in humans. No one has even studied what is in the prepared placenta pills that many women pay a lot of money to acquire,’ she says, calling the practice questionable, at best.
It’s the view most dominantly held by the scienti c community, which overwhelmingly agrees that there’s a ‘complete absence’ of placenta consumption not just in the medical literature, but across all historical and anthropological texts from time immemorial.
Its rst appearance in academic literature was in the 1970s, they note; they point to cross-cultural surveys showing, for example, that of 179 cases, there’s just one instance of maternal placentophagy – making it ‘a universally avoided’ practice. What’s more, they contend, the fact that humans display no intrinsic biological urge to ingest their afterbirth is a clear red ag that it’s neither advantageous nor healthy. ‘If placenta eating were a biologic imperative that could treat anaemia after delivery, improve breast milk production, and stave o post-partum depression then the most successful at passing on their genes would be women with a taste for placenta. I’ve delivered thousands of babies and not one woman has ever said, “You know, I really crave some placenta,”’ Jennifer says.
The most thorough and recent review bears this out. Last year, scientists at Northwestern University in the US decisively concluded that placentogaphy’s proven bene ts weren’t even minimal – they’re zilch. But what’s really worrying about their ndings is that any research, let alone any clinical data, regarding potential risks is totally non-existent. In short, we know zero about its potential dangers. Alarm bells are ringing and there’s a growing number of voices from the medico-scienti c community actively warning against it.
‘Eating placenta is good for you if you are a mammal, but not if you are human,’ Mushi Matjila, a gynaecology specialist at the University of Cape Town’s medical school, told the Mail & Guardian. ‘There are all sorts of risks associated with consuming human tissue, including virus and bacteria transmission.’
To date, side e ects remain anecdotal but reports detailing mood swings, stomach cramps, digestive issues, pain in the pelvic girdle and headaches are increasing. Jenna*, a 29-year-old Cape Town-based copywriter, says far from fostering a sense of well-being, her placenta pills brought about the opposite e ect. ‘I came close to a breakdown,’ she says. ‘I took my pills for a week in which I swung between terrifying rage and utter despair, and went from sobbing to yelling in a heartbeat. I stopped taking the pills and within 24 hours I felt like my normal self again.’
Placentophagy advocates vastly outnumber those who say they experienced baby blues or who failed to feel connected to their newborn despite consuming their placenta. Cases like Jenna’s are as yet a tiny minority. The answer, for now, lies only in whether you’re willing to wager your well-being on the toss of a coin. Makes that Afterbirth Al Forno a little less appealing, doesn’t it?