Kardashian and Ancient Tradition: Placentas Are In

by Alice Robb

Last week, Kim Kardashian revealed her plan to join the growing roster of trendy new mothers making a meal out of their placentas. (Go ahead, reread that first sentence. Please.)

Celebs including January Jones and Holly Madison have made headlines singing the praises of the vitamin-rich organ, whose ingestion has been credited with restoring hormonal balance, increasing milk production, and even preventing post-partum depression. (32-year-old Kim says she hopes it will make her look younger.) Women who are squeamish about consuming raw placenta, which looks a bit like brains, can find recipes for disguising it in a lasagna or blending it into a smoothie.

(Ed note: I could have posted this at lunch, but I spared you all. -MT)

If you find this gross, you might take comfort in anthropological research confirming that most humans do, too. A 2010 study by Sharon Young and Daniel Benyshek suggests that “maternal placentophagy” is extremely rare: in a survey of 179 societies around the world, the researchers found only one instance of placenta consumption.

Discarding the placenta as medical waste, though, may be as “unnatural” as eating it. Cross-culturally, the placenta is revered as a site of spiritual if not nutritional value. More than half of the cultures in Young and Benyshek’s study buried the placenta in ritual ceremonies; others hung it from the branches of special trees. The Malays of Langkawi think of the placenta as the younger sibling of the baby, and give it a burial fit for a child. The Igbo of Africa believe that burying the placenta connects the new-born to the fertility spirits of the ground.

Placentas might not ward off evil spirits or restore women’s looks, but recent research suggests they do play an important role in producing a healthy child. Last month, British doctors recommended midwives wait longer to cut the umbilical cord, to give the baby more time to take in the nutrients in the placenta. In her quest to retain her youthful glow, Kim may have incidentally hit on something real.

Image: Getty Images