Geophagy: Not Your Average Eating Disorder

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We've covered pica here on the blog before -- any one of a number of conditions in which people are compelled to eat things that aren't food -- but compulsively eating urinal cakes or snacking on match heads seems a world away from today's topic, geophagy -- eating dirt. The reason is that, despite a fair amount of disagreement among experts, there are a lot of people who believe eating dirt can have some health benefits. An ingredient found in clay from the Southern US is also one of the main active ingredients in many anti-diarrheal medicines, for instance, and a Science Digest recently recommended swallowing dirt as a quick-fix antidote for people who've accidentally ingested Paraquat, a potent weed killer.

dirt cookies.jpgWhat's more, people have done it for thousands of years, from the Native Americans of California and Peru to developing nations where pregnant woman eat clay to ward off nausea and possibly aid in fetal development (lots of calcium!) and African slaves in the US, where in some parts of the old South they were nicknamed "clay-eaters." The practice continues in the rural South still, where you can buy baked, cut and processed clay dirt at flea markets. In Haiti, rising food prices have encouraged the practice, and you can buy super-cheap cookies made from dirt, salt and vegetable shortening -- more useful for warding off hunger than for their nutritive value. (Pictured at left: Haitian dirt cookies.)

Eating dirt has long been associated with iron deficiency, and while no one can say for sure whether geophagy is a cause or an effect of needing iron, iron supplements have been shown to reduce the urge. If you simply have a taste for it -- well, that's another matter.

if you feel like trying it out for yourself, you can buy some "Georgia white dirt" here, from a website that notes humanity's long and proud tradition of eating dirt, points out that said white dirt is an important additive in Kaopectate, toothpaste, Rolaids, Mylanta and Maalox, but labels their product with the following warning: "Not suggested for human consumption." That's because there are some no-duh dangers associated with eating dirt, the foremost of which is that, you know, there could be poop in it. Specifically, poop that contains parasite eggs which will give you worm infestations in your gut, or random toxins or lead or weird bacterias or a host of other nasty things. Given that, I'd much rather buy a bottle of Maalox from the store than make my own at home, but to each his own.
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July 14, 2008 - 6:35am
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