It’s tough writing a gripping skeptical article these days. The equivalent of skeptical horror, or skeptical porn (depending on your perspective, I guess) is exposing a belief or behavior that is shockingly absurd. The problem is, there is so much shockingly absurd nonsense out there that regular skeptics have been desensitized.
We encounter the same problem with satire, which is one of my favorite forms of commentary. However, many of the beliefs we confront are beyond satire – they have left no room for exaggeration. What ends up happening is that the satire is mistaken for a genuine phenomenon.
I suppose I will just have to be content with informing skeptics.
These were my thoughts as I started writing about my current topic – placenta eating. I know, you’re shocked, right? I was asked about this topic after it was discussed on the Preggie Pals podcast. They had on an “expert,” by which they meant an acupuncturist and fan of traditional Chinese medicine, to discuss the many alleged health benefits of consuming the placenta after birth.
According to the e-mailer who brought this segment to my attention:
“3 key claims were made for the benefits eating the placenta; it supports lactation, it helps prevent post-natal depression and it is iron rich and can therefore help with conditions related to blood loss during labour or anaemia. A number of other frankly bizarre claims were also made about the method of preparing the placenta for consumption.”
(His spelling of the word “anaemia” might give a clue as to his location.)
This is an easy one – there is nary a shred of evidence for the benefits of placentophagy (eating the placenta). I did a PubMed search and did not find a single article studying the net health effects of placentophagy. Most articles were simply exploring the behavior culturally.
Harriet Hall wrote about placentophagy on Science-Based Medicine. She includes a review of the evidence presented by placentalbenefits.info. This is an excellent way to review claims – allow proponents to present their best case. I reviewed the evidence also, and I concur with Harriet – no actual evidence for the health benefits of placentophagy are presented. Only one study, a 1954 article from Czechoslovakia, showed increased lactation in women taking supplements made from placenta. The study lacks rigor and has never been replicated.
The rest of the articles cited either were not about placentophagy at all, or did not look at clinical outcomes.
The most plausible claim for the benefits of placentophagy is that it provides iron, which may be lacking in women who have just delivered. If that is the case, then I suggest an iron supplement may be an easier solution.
I also did find an interesting paper that suggests that there may be a reason why humans do not habitually consume the placenta, while most other placental mammals do. Mammals eat their placenta as a behavioral adaptation likely because it provides needed nutrition, so why waste it. It may also provide the benefit in that otherwise the placenta may attract predators.
Human cultures generally do not consume the placenta – why the difference? The author suggests that it may be due to fire use. Fires release a great deal of ash and smoke. The placenta partly serves the purpose of filtering out toxins, and may concentrate these toxins, specifically toxins from fires. If that is the case, then consuming the placenta may have net negative health effects.
It is also plausible that the benefits of eating the placenta for simple nutrition were less for humans, as hunter-gatherer societies, and later agricultural societies, were quite successful at securing food. Certainly there is no need today to rely upon the placenta for nutrition.
Given the availability of prenatal vitamins, iron supplements, and easy cheap access to all the nutritious food a pregnant woman could desire – why the focus on the placenta as a source of nutrients? I suspect some magical thinking is at work.
Bruce Hood wrote about belief in “essence” in his excellent book, Supersense. Reading proponents of placentophagy gives the impression that they feel the placenta has a magical essence and therefore consuming it will provide benefits that a hamburger, say, would not.
Proponents also often refer to the placental as a medicinal – again implying benefits beyond mere nutrition. Neither of these views, however, is science-based.
I also suspect that the novelty – doing something radical because you have some insight the average person lacks – is a huge appeal.
Placentophagy has not been adequately studied to support any claims about net health effects. From a plausibility point of view, it is as likely to have net negative effects as net positive effects. The only plausible positive health effects would come from its nutritious value. There is no reason to suspect that these nutrient benefits are unique to the placenta or that they cannot more easily be obtained from regular food or supplements.
Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.