What’s for Dinner II

[No prurient photos along with this posting]

In College, my favorite professor was an anthropologist, Earl Count by name, lately deceased, who also held a divinity degree. One of his hobby-researches was into the practice of placentophagia. The dots Count connected were these: 1. the abrupt transition from the pregnant state to the post-partum state requires a huge hormonal reprogramming; 2. in humans, this reprogramming frequently goes badly awry, with the consequence of post-partum depression or insufficient lactation; 3. non-human mammals, including primates, and whether herbivorous or carnivorous, eat their placentas, and don’t, so far as we can tell, suffer post-partum depression; 4. placentas are chock-full of steroid and peptide hormones, growth factors, immunological factors — the biochemical companies know this, and use placentas as a raw material from which to purify several of these substances for sale; 5. most human societies, particularly those you might think of as “primitive”, have strong views, either pro or con, that is either ritual or taboo, on placental disposition. I remember Count’s exposition of the theory particularly well, since it was delivered from the pulpit of the Hamilton College Chapel, with Count in his full ecclesiastic raiment. Not to prejudice the argument further, but I also recall our nickname for Prof. Count was “Noah” , Noah Count.

Not a typical dinner-time conversation topic in China, but, like a cue-ball sunk on an unanticipated cushion-bounce, there it was one day, hardly to be ignored. The upshot of the conversation was that the Chinese, or least a traditional seam among them, advocate placentophagia. Its advantages have been reputed by Chinese traditional medicine from time immemorial, and include promotion of lactation and prevention of depression.

A thorough literature search would require fluency in Chinese, in classical Chinese no less. But an aperitif may be had by googling for “placenta in traditional Chinese medicine”. Among the hits you will find descriptions of the biological bases (echoing Earl Count’s talking points), recipes and citations to National Institutes of Health research publications on the subject.

In reading some of this material, I detect few scruples as to whether it is your own or someone else’s placenta you are eating. Indeed, apparently men have been known to indulge, perhaps unwittingly, though the reputed benefits are hard to extrapolate to males. Who knows? A good dose of estrogen may be salutary in some males; Dick Cheney springs to mind.

Some of the recipes involve cooking or stir-frying. Maybe tastier that way, though most suggest chemically gentler forms of preparation, like drying or freeze-drying — a sort of jerky — with subsequent powdering and encapsulation for the more squeamish. Additional seasonings — ginger seems a favorite — are suggested, with a more or less explicit nod that some of the flavor components could do with a bit of camouflage. As a biochemist, I would concur with the gentler means, and note that even then, the many esoteric, peptidic components are not likely to survive the digestive process. But please don’t construe my view as a suggestion for parenteral administration.

Chinese regard for the placenta is such that it has prompted a recent law giving ownership of a placenta to its “mother”, and forbidding donation or sale to other parties without the owner’s consent. (Chinese laws should be seen as acknowledgement of existence of a phenomenon, not necessarily as a political will to abate it, unless the “phenomenon” is defamation of the government, in which case the opposite is true: it is not acknowledged, but strongly abated.)

As a member of a fairly primitive society myself, I cannot help not being neutral on the issue. So many ramifications! I can guess the “Choice” crowd’s answer, but am curious about the “Right-to-Lifers'” line on placentophagia. Or the Church’s. Or Oprah’s. Or George Bush’s. My dictionary fails to qualify its definition of cannibalism to exempt ingestion of placental tissue, cooked, dried, diced or otherwise. Yet I assume there are legal strictures against cannibalism in our fifty states — I can’t cite sections of code — and wonder if criminal code makes exception. Whether criminalized or not, placentophagia seems spiritually aligned with natural foods advocates: Would vegetarians partake? Vegans?

And the Health Care Industry, which I will have to regard as the major “producer” of placentas, what’s its role? Do they recognize the mother’s ownership? Offer it to her? Sell it without her consent? Cook them? Burn them? Trash them?

Ah, Count. Count on a good meal to stimulate a good discussion on eating habits.

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