On a sunny Friday morning in Venice, Valerie Rosas is standing in a kitchen, carefully cutting little pieces of meat with a chef's knife on a disposable cutting board.
But it's not lamb filet or beef brisket she's preparing.
It's human placenta.
Rosas is a placenta encapsulationist — which means she helps transform the organ expelled after childbirth into something edible: Depending on her client's preference, it might be ready-to-pop pills, smoothie packs or salves.
Eating the vitamin-rich placenta is touted as a way for new mothers to increase milk supply, boost energy and iron levels, level out hormonal fluctuations and keep postpartum depression at bay. Proponents run the gamut from celebrities (January Jones famously indulged) to businesswomen to stay-at-home moms.
Rosas' dark, curly locks fall delicately over her shoulders as she thoroughly sterilizes her work area, puts on her "I Love Placenta" apron and arranges 2-inch pieces of fresh, gorgeously red afterbirth on a piece of stark white parchment paper. She leaves some space in the middle of her symmetrical spread for the umbilical cord — one of the shorter ones she's seen, she says, but still beautiful. She'll fashion that into a heart, a keepsake for the new mom to store on the table next to her bed, or perhaps hang on the tree as an ornament come Christmas.
This client has chosen the raw method: After Rosas dehydrates the placenta over a period of four to eight hours, she'll crush the pieces and fit them into anywhere from 75 to 200 capsules. Another option, the traditional Chinese method, involves lightly steaming the placenta with a bit of ginger and lemon before it's encapsulated.
For all its current trendiness, placentophagy has a long history.
In ancient Egypt, the placenta had its own hieroglyph. In Haiti and Argentina, placentas were buried and part of the umbilical cord preserved, used as medicine for children when they became ill. And William Ober's 1979 journal article, "Notes on Placentophagy," discusses a medical officer observing placenta consumption among Vietnamese nurses, who fried the placentas of young mothers with onions and ate them.
Despite anecdotal claims, to date there have been no clinical studies showing any positive impact (or lack thereof) from placenta consumption. However, earlier this year, two University of Nevada, Las Vegas, researchers published a study showing that 96 percent of women surveyed reported a positive or very positive experience taking placenta pills. And Mark B. Kristal, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Buffalo, who's considered the definitive expert on placentophagy, published an article in the March 2012 issue of Ecology of Food and Nutrition outlining the benefits of placenta ingestion by non-human mammalian mothers, such as an increase in mother-infant interaction. Questions about the benefits to human mothers, however, remain unanswered.
Back in the sterilized kitchen, Rosas changes gloves three or four times throughout preparation. She cuts a piece of placenta for a tincture — an alcohol solution that preserves the stuff for a lifetime, as opposed to the two- or three-year potency of the pills. It's used by some women to regulate hormone changes during menstrual cycles and even menopause.
Next, she moves on to the more sentimental part of her work. She lays the malleable placenta on a piece of art paper — with one swoop forming a beautiful, dark pink, detailed mirror image made of fresh blood. This "placenta art" is included, along with pills, tincture and the cord keepsake, in a package that retails for $250 to $350, depending on additions and the geographic location of her clients.
Rosas is quick to be at the side of new mothers at hospitals, who sign a placenta release form to retain ownership and then hand their afterbirth over to her.
Her passion is infectious. Her slogan is "Placenta Power!" and she holds her hand over her heart when telling a story about a neighbor, a new mother who had spiraled into depression. Rosas is emotionally invested in her clients: She takes Polaroids with them for a keepsake photo book and, if they wish, fashions dreamcatchers of umbilical cord for them.
But she never intended to find her calling in placentas. Rosas was going to be a rock & roll photographer, trailing bands and documenting their time on the road — leading a life of Almost Famous proportions.
She also never meant to be a mother. But two weeks before she scraped together enough money to get her tubes tied, at 28, she found out she was pregnant. What followed was depression and isolation.
"I felt so trapped," she says. Extreme depression set in, to the point that her partner, Henry, feared he'd come home to find that she had harmed herself.
Then Rosas learned about placenta encapsulation from her doula. After a difficult labor and the birth of their daughter, the couple set about doing the encapsulation themselves. The honors went to Henry, a chef who followed instructions they found on the Internet.
When she began taking the pills, Rosas felt immediate relief.
"I truly believe my placenta helped me to not have postpartum psychosis," she says. Earlier this year, Rosas became certified in placenta encapsulation and established the Feel-Good Company — Placenta Encapsulation by Valerie Rosas. Thanks to word-of-mouth referrals and Yelp, she has now encapsulated 17 placentas.
For Rosas, it's not just about turning afterbirth into pills, tincture or salve but about shifting a bit of focus and support back to new mothers.
"That's probably the main driving force behind placenta encapsulation, to be that support system that I didn't have," she says. "It's hard enough as it is to be having a baby. Then to deal with postpartum depression and not have a support system? That just makes it worse."
New mother Brigid Dunnagun had been in labor for 30 hours when her husband, desperate to find a placenta encapsulator at the last minute, found Rosas online and put her through to his wife.
"She talked me through [labor] and gave me a glimmer of hope that it would end, eventually," Dunnagun says. And within an hour, Rosas and her mini ice cooler came to see Dunnagun and collect the placenta.
Sara Pereira, who has encapsulated more than 800 placentas, including that of January Jones, stresses the importance of communication with clients. "I always reiterate, 'If you ever have any questions, contact me' — and they often do," Pereira says.
Placenta encapsulationists around the country hope to create a set of standards to ensure proper preparation. "It's becoming so widespread that we need to make sure things are done properly," Pereira says.
Rosas says she's interested to see what studies and trials come out on placenta consumption in the future. For now, she's firmly convinced of its healing powers.
"Your own body made it, it's just for you," she says. "No one could prescribe anything more perfect than what your body has made for you."
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