Placenta encapsulation has become a mini-industry in the US, amid questions over its safety and benefits.
Callie Landis makes a living dehydrating placentas for new moms to eat. As founder of Lancaster Placenta Company, a lab in her Pennsylvania home town, she takes the organs moms send her and turns them into capsules, tinctures and balms. She’s most proud of her placenta gummy bears. “They’re pink and glittery,” Landis said. “That encompasses womanhood through and through.”
No one doubts that the placenta keeps a fetus healthy. The organ attaches to the uterus, delivering nutrients via the umbilical cord, and gets delivered shortly after the baby. But evangelists of placenta-eating can easily rattle off a list of the practices’s supposed benefits for the mother after birth, too: they say it aids in breast milk production, reduces the effects of postpartum depression, and helps with general postnatal healing. Celebrities like Alicia Silverstone, Chrissy Teigen, Mandy Moore, and more than one Kardashian swear by placentophagy, its official name. Last week, the reality TV star Kailyn Lowry posted photos of a placenta smoothie made with the help of Landis’s lab – a frothy, strawberry-colored beverage that she blended in her kitchen and served through a mason jar.
Traditionally, the practice is mostly used by midwives or doulas who present the postpartum snack in domestic settings. You might imagine a new mother eating a placenta that’s been cooked with spices and herbs (like ginger or garlic) a few hours after she’s had a home birth. But now, companies like Lancaster Placenta Co have rebranded placentophagy as lab-grade and mess-free, giving birth to a mini-industry of placenta encapsulation.
“The celebrities have really helped this go mainstream,” Landis said. “They took the image of it away from only being about those crunchy, granola, natural remedy moms.”
Mommy Made Encapsulation, with locations in five states, is another such company, with celebrity clients that include Ashlee Simpson, Shay Mitchell, Jenna Dewan and “all of the Vanderpump girls” of the reality show Vanderpump Rules, according to the its founder, Juliane Corona.
“To date, we’ve done 300,000 encapsulations,” Corona said. “These celebrities and influencers really propelled my business. They’ve allowed moms to feel like they weren’t the only crazy person who wanted to do it. They’ll say, ‘Oh, so-and-so did this and her baby didn’t get sick.’”
But in at least one case, a baby did get sick when its mother ingested an infected placenta. In 2017, the CDC warned against the practice after an Oregon baby was diagnosed with a strep infection. His mother had eaten dried placenta capsules (though the capsules could not definitively be ruled as the culprit). “That’s the case that still haunts everyone in the industry,” Corona said.
That’s partly why some encapsulation companies stress that they follow US government standards for safe food handling. “I’ll go on TikTok and see women who are encapsulating and their hair isn’t covered, they’re in a kitchen with porous surfaces, and there are all these potentially hazardous practices,” Corona said.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, the professional association of OB-GYNs, does not have specific guidance on placentophagy. But a spokesperson for the association referred the Guardian to a 2017 study that found “no scientific evidence of any clinical benefit of placentophagy among humans, and no placental nutrients and hormones are retained in sufficient amounts after placenta encapsulation to be potentially helpful to the mother postpartum.”
In another study, researchers who reviewed roughly 23,000 birth records found no increased risk to babies of mothers who ate their placenta compared with those whose mothers did not. There is no FDA oversight or regulation of the practice.
For now, the industry relies heavily on anecdotal evidence – as do most wellness trends backed by enthusiastic practitioners but sketchy science. “It’s so hard because there’s not enough research out there to prove it one way or another,” Corona said. “I tell women, in life there is no guarantee with anything, but what I can say is if it helps you have less sad days, that’s a good thing.”
These encapsulation services work similarly: before birth, a mom will receive a placenta go-kit that includes an ice chest and packs, biohazard bags, and a prepaid shipping box to send the placenta back in. On the day she gives birth, she tells her nurses she wants to keep the placenta. (Only four states have rules on the books granting moms the right to keep the organ, but many hospitals will allow a woman to do so if she signs a release stating she won’t sell it.)
When the frozen placenta is shipped back to the company, it is sterilized, the blood is removed, and it is placed in a dehydrating machine. The dry, cracker-like result is then crushed into a very fine powder, to be consumed in capsules. The capsules are flavorless and odorless – unless you go for flavored options like berry, bubblegum, grape or lime. At Lancaster Placenta Co, the powder can be used to make smoothies or infused into tinctures and gummies, too. The mother takes the placenta edibles like a supplement until her supply runs out.
While finishing her MBA at Columbia University, Melissa Wang noticed more of her friends seeking out information about placenta-eating. “Much of American medicine is focused on getting pregnant and prenatal support, but once the baby is born, we forget to take care of moms,” she said. This led her to found Pluscenta Care, where a prep kit and jar of capsules costs $375. This is a fairly standard rate: Lancaster Placenta Co charges $299 per encapsulation, while Mommy Made charges $400.
Pluscenta only sells pills – Wang believes it’s the most potent method of delivery. “A mom only has one placenta, and we can’t reproduce those precious pills,” Wang said. “So you don’t want to waste it by doing a DIY method.”
But those DIY methods abound on social media. “I’ve seen placenta cookies and placenta chocolates,” Corona said. “I’ve even heard of placenta spaghetti.”