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Don’t eat your placenta, researchers warn

More than 200 millennia of human civilization and two centuries of modern medicine have brought us to this recent heavy-handed admonition by scientific researchers:

It’s probably a bad idea to eat your placenta.

The 11-page, medical jargon-filled article published this month in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology seeks to provide a clear answer to what many view as a somewhat gross question.

Over the past decade, the authors say, there’s been a growing interest in natural childbirth by people wary of bringing a human life into the world in an antiseptic room full of intravenous drugs, gloved doctors and fluorescent light. And many have questioned whether doctors have it all wrong when they place a placenta in a biohazard bag and toss it out.

After all, for many mammals, the consumption of placentas – placentophagy, as researchers call it – has been going on for as long as there have been placentas.

But the recent article seeks to tackle two major questions: Is the practice beneficial? And is it safe?

For anyone who missed that day in biology class, the placenta is an organ shared by a pregnant mother and her growing fetus, functioning as the lungs, gastrointestinal system, liver and kidneys of the developing child.

During birth, the organ is expelled along with the baby, and most hospitals discard it as medical waste.

Proponents have said eating placenta reduces pain, improves mood and energy level, increases milk production and may even have anti-aging properties – a wonder drug produced by a pregnant woman’s own body.

For humans, eating placenta has been a fringe practice until recently.

Positive placenta-eating anecdotes have flourished, and so have companies that charge hundreds to prepare a placenta for consumption, dehydrated like beef jerky or processed into smoothies or pills.

Meanwhile doctors – and policymakers who regulate what is safe to put in our mouths – admit to being somewhat flummoxed by the practice.

According to the research paper, more than half of obstetricians and gynecologists said they were uninformed about the risks and benefits of the practice, and 60 percent said they weren’t sure whether they should be in favor of it.

That vacuum of sound medical advice by family doctors has been filled by celebrities and reality TV stars.

January Jones told People Magazine that placenta consumption is “not witch-crafty” and that the capsules helped her get back to a grueling “Mad Men” shooting schedule after her son was born. She ingested the placenta pills everyday.

“Your placenta gets dehydrated and made into vitamins,” she told the magazine. “It’s something I was very hesitant about, but we’re the only mammals who don’t ingest our own placentas.”

Kim Kardashian West tweeted about eating her placenta in a bid to get people to download her app. Her sister, Kourtney, fed some placenta to her family as a prank.

Buoyed by the celebrity endorsements, a cottage industry has sprung up to make placenta palatable – more like popping a vitamin pill and less like the Dothraki pregnancy ceremony from “Game of Thrones.”

So there’s no question that people are eating placentas, but is anything good happening afterward?

The researchers’ answer: Nope.

They acknowledge the claims made by proponents, but analyzed any scientific studies they could get their hands on – and found them lacking. Many were unscientific or surveys taken by people who’ve self-selected to participate, raising serious questions about bias. The researchers warned that positive anecdotes about improved emotions may be influenced by the placebo effect.

Until recently, it’s been of little consequence. People have always done things that seem weird or gross to others – unpalatable but harmless.

But in June the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a warning about placenta eating. A new mom in Oregon passed on a potentially deadly blood infection to her breast-feeding baby, as The Washington Post’s Peter Holley reported. The cause: Capsules of the placenta the mother had been ingesting since giving birth.

“Because placentophagy is potentially harmful with no documented benefit, counseling women should be directive: physicians should discourage this practice,” the recent study says. “Health care organizations should develop clear clinical guidelines to implement a scientific and professional approach to human placentophagy.”

The study also sought to debunk the claims made by ardent proponents of placenta ingestion.

The organ does contain small amounts of Oxytocin, a drug that causes “the smooth muscles around the mammary cells to contract and eject milk,” the study says, but there’s no indication that Oxytocin or other hormones can be absorbed from eating a placenta. In rats, placenta ingestion was found to increase the pain threshold “without inhibiting the ability to care for the offspring,” but a similar effect in humans has not been found.

Still, changing made-up minds may be difficult.

The doctors on the study have Ph.Ds, yes, but they don’t have the reach of a reality television show or an app like Kardashian West, who gushed about eating her own placenta.

“I can’t go wrong with taking a pill made of my own hormones – made by me, for me. I started researching and read about so many moms who felt this same way and said the overall healing process was so much easier.”

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The obscure Supreme Court case that decided tomatoes are vegetables

It’s a question used to trick schoolkids the nation over: Is the tomato actually a fruit or vegetable?

Botanically, it’s a fruit. But legally, it’s not.

And the origins of that discrepancy lie in a 19th-century Supreme Court case so obscure, many tomato experts aren’t even aware of it.

“Tomatoes have such an outlandish history,” said George Ball, the chief executive at the seed company Burpee. “Most people hear it and are bewildered for life.”

As Ball explains it, fruits and vegetables differ in one major botanical way. A fruit is technically the seed-bearing structure of a plant — and a vegetable can be virtually any part of the plant we eat.

At the time of the court case in question, Nix v. Hedden, fruits and vegetables differed in another big way, as well: Imported vegetables were slapped with a 10-percent tariff upon their arrival in the United States, and imported fruits were not.

When one Manhattan wholesaler — John Nix & Company, owned by John Nix and his four sons — got hit with the tariff on a shipment of Caribbean tomatoes, he disputed the tax on the grounds that tomatoes were not technically vegetables.

The case, filed in 1887, made its way to the Supreme Court in 1893. There, the court disagreed with the Nixes, ruling that people neither prepare nor eat tomatoes like fruits — and that they should be taxed accordingly.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas,” wrote Justice Horace Gray in his 1893 opinion. “But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables.”

The timing of Gray’s decision was fortuitous: It came during a period of radical transformation of the world’s fruit and vegetable trade. Once a series of largely local or regional markets, a new class of national wholesalers, like the Nixes, were beginning to introduce urban consumers to produce from much farther away.

According to news reports from the time, John Nix & Company were among the first to source produce from Florida, California and Bermuda, even chartering a steamship to bring onions back faster. The firm exported fruit to Europe, and returned with imported European potatoes. At the time of the junior John Nix’s death, in 1922, the company had opened a second office in Chicago to accommodate the growing long-distance flow of fruits and vegetables.

In 1937, when the League of Nations sought to classify fruits, vegetables and other goods for the purpose of coordinating tariffs, tomatoes ended up under “vegetables / edible plants / roots and tubers.” (A documentation official at the World Customs Organization said the Gray ruling may have been at play.)

That doesn’t mean the question is settled. Several states have rebelled: Tennessee and Ohio have named the tomato their state fruit — though New Jersey has made it the state vegetable, specifically citing Nix v. Hedden.

To further complicate matters, the European Union issued a directive in December 2001 classifying tomatoes as fruit — along with rhubarb, carrots, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins and melons.

But to Burpee’s George Ball, the two classifications shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. His company’s logic — rather like Justice Gray’s — is that plants should be described according to their usage.

“Are [tomatoes] fruits? Of course,” he said. “Are they vegetables? You bet.”

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The latest way companies are luring top female talent: Breast milk shipping

After returning to work following the birth of her twins, Kate Torgersen was on a business trip in San Diego in spring 2014. It wasn’t the most important trip professionally, but personally, she recalled, proving that she could seamlessly transition back to the workplace was a big deal.

There was just one problem: As committed as Torgersen was to her career, she was equally committed to keeping her newborns healthy by providing them with breast milk – one gallon every two days.

Like many working mothers who find themselves on the road, Torgensen faced a tough choice. Stop pumping altogether, and her body would produce less milk, and her twins would be without food upon her return home. Continue pumping, and she’d have to find a way to store a couple of gallons of highly perishable breast milk at ice cold temperatures during her four-day trip. Torgensen continued pumping and decided to store her milk in Nalgene bottles that she kept in an ice-filled cooler in her hotel room.

Eventually, she realized, she’d have to find a way to get the milk back to her home in San Francisco.

“At the airport I had the pleasure of explaining to some very confused TSA agents why I had a supernatural amount of breast milk on me,” she said, noting that they made her throw out the ice. “Past security, I had to find an airport bartender with ice to refill the cooler, which I had to lug onto the plane.”

“It sounds like a crazy experience, and that’s because it was,” she added.

It was so crazy, Torgersen decided, that no working mother should have to face similar circumstances again as they navigate the rocky transition back to the workplace. Upon her return home, she began working on a new start-up: Milk Stork, a service that allows traveling mothers to ship their milk to their baby from the road with a cooler that arrives in their hotel room as a postpaid package. Mothers can ship up to 34 ounces per day with the materials provided, and packages are shipped overnight in the continental United States.

Along the way, the company says, shipping updates arrive via email.

Their tagline: “Don’t choose between your child’s nutrition and your work.”

Milk Stork arrives as a growing number of companies are assisting female employees who are nursing.

Last year, Peter Fasolo, Johnson & Johnson’s executive vice president, announced the launch of a “temperature-controlled delivery service” that lets mothers ship breast milk home during business travel.

Ernst & Young, IBM, Accenture and Twitter all offer breast-milk shipping to their employees as well.

Federal law requires employers to provide nursing mothers with a “reasonable break time” and a place to express milk, but those requirements do not extend to business travel. The result, mothers say, is that many mothers are forced to “pump and dump,” a frustrating habit that some mothers compare to throwing out “liquid gold.”

“If I were traveling and had to throw away my milk each time I pumped, I would dread it, and I would probably try to avoid travel,” Samantha Lott, a 32-year-old consultant senior manager at Boston Scientific who uses Milk Stork when she travels for work. “Some women want to stay home with kids, and others want to go back to work, but not at the cost of their child’s health.”

Milk Stork launched in 2015 and has amassed about 3,000 clients from about 70 companies, up from 25 at the beginning of the year, including Unilever and SAP, the company said. Many of those companies added the service to their health benefits after female employees requested it, Torgersen said, noting that – at about $140 per day – Milk Stork is often cheaper than extending maternity leave.

For companies looking for innovative ways to attract top talent, especially women, being able to offer milk shipping sends a particular message, according to Jason Russell, the North America Total Rewards director at ‎SAP. Of the company’s 15,000 employees, about a dozen are currently taking advantage of Milk Stork, which the Fortune 500 company began offering employees this year alongside medical, dental and vision benefits, he said.

“I think when you put yourself in the standpoint of a potential employee who has options and is thinking, ‘Where would I want to go and work,’ you’re going to look for a place that values the whole person and doesn’t consider you just another number,” said Russell. “You’ll consider what the company will actively do to make your work-life balance and your experience there enjoyable.”

Russell called the program an “investment” and said Milk Stork’s value is greater than the modest number of employees using it.

But it’s that small number – a result of the reality that only so many breast-feeding mothers want to travel for work – gives some experts pause. Barbara Corcoran, the well-known business executive and investor who makes regular appearances as a judge on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” said she believes Milk Stork appeals to a particular segment of traveling mothers – the “die-hard business executive who will only breast-feed.”

Most women are willing to pump, she said, but when it becomes too inconvenient they resort to formula. Corcoran said she believes the majority fall into the compromise category, but she thinks Milk Stork offers companies a great way to support female employees.

“I think it’s a very clever and inexpensive give for companies to offer,” she said, referring to the service as “great PR.” “It sends the right message – ‘we want to wrap your job around your personal needs.’ ”

But if companies truly want to attract a “slew of great women,” Corcoran said, there’s an even better way to do it.

“Extend maternity leave,” she said.

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