Remember those cozy days on the playground when you patted and poked and cooked up a real nice mudpie…and then ate it?
Most of you grew up and left your dirt-eating days behind, but not all of you. Do I have any readers out there with lingering mud mustaches? Raise a hand (er, a comment?) and let us see who you are. As it turns out, you’re not alone.
Kids who eat dirt are called kids. But when adults eat dirt (or clay, or chalk), it’s called geophagy. (Actually, it’s technically called geophagy for kids, too.)
If you just said, “No, that’s called pica,” hear me out. Pica is classified as an eating disorder in which people feel like they really need to eat things that aren’t food. But geophagy is specific to earthy substances, and it’s often more like a hobby than a craving.
Who eats dirt?
Anybody can catch the geophagy bug. Among animals, dirt is no delicacy; it’s in the diet of mammals, reptiles, and especially birds (many species of parrot, specifically). In people, dirt-eating is most common among children and pregnant women. It’s also associated with people who live in poverty and who adhere to traditional medical practices over modern ones.
Geophagy is going on all over the world, especially if you’re talking about animals. (I’m pretty sure it’s happening in my backyard right now, actually.) Human dirt-eaters may be more common in parts of Africa than in westernized countries, but the practice is still alive and well in the rural American South.
What kind of dirt?
Clay, mostly. Georgia white clay (kaolin) is apparently particularly pleasing to the palate and is available for purchase online. Some small stores in rural areas keep clay in stock. According to Wikipedia, if you go all the way to Haiti you can get a real farm-to-table experience: you can buy fresh, local mudpies from women who just baked them on their roofs.
Well, the main reason people eat clay may be that it’s good for you. It includes minerals and nutrients that can fight pathogens, and there is evidence that birds eat clay because it neutralizes toxins in other foods they ingest, allowing them to get nutrients from the other foods without becoming sick. In fact, a few types of clay may work like Kaopectate (which, until 2003, actually included kaolin – Georgia white clay – as an ingredient). And some dirt-eating is likely the remnant of traditional medicinal practices. Great-granny may not have called her natural remedies “geophagy,” but they sure did taste a lot like dirt…
It’s possible that some people eat dirt because they don’t have anything else to eat. The fact that geophagy is more common in impoverished populations than it is among people who have enough to eat lends credence to this theory. Another consideration is that geophagy may be a part of tribal or religious ceremonies and rituals in some cultures.
And of course, some people just like the taste of dirt.
For a truly insightful essay paralleling a foray into geophagy with a spiritual journey, read Beth Ann Fennelly’s piece in the Oxford American.