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Geophagy is a practice of eating earthy substances such as clay, chalk, and laundry starch, often to augment a mineral-deficient diet.

There is a psychological hypothesis, which is centered around the craving ideas, reported by clay eaters. The researchers attention was directed mainly towards the pregnant and postpartum women and their emotional state. Geophagy was attributed to feelings of misery, homesickness, depression, and alienation.[1]

Geophagy is most often seen in rural or preindustrial societies among pregnant women and children. However, it is practiced by members of all races, social classes, ages, and sexes. Western medicine has long characterized geophagy as a pica, a type of eating disorder. In other parts of the world the practice is less stigmatized, and geophagy is not studied as a pathology but rather as an "adaptive behavior" that supplements the diet with essential nutrients or treats a disorder such as diarrhea.[2]

In parts of Africa, rural United States, and villages in India clay consumption may be correlated with pregnancy as women eat clay to eliminate nausea, possibly because the clay coats the gastrointestinal tract and absorbs dangerous toxins. The clay may also provide critical calcium for fetal development (Vemeer).

Bentonite clay is available worldwide as a digestive aid; kaolin is also widely used as a digestive aid and as the base for some medicines. Attapulgite, a substance found in clay in the Southern United States, is an active ingredient in many anti-diarrheal medicines.[3]

Geophagy was also practiced by Native Americans who would eat earth with acorns and potatoes to neutralize potentially harmful alkaloids. Clay was used in the production of acorn bread.

Geophagy has also been observed in birds. Notably, South American macaws have been observed at clay licks in South America by scientist Charles Munn, whilst Sulphur-crested Cockatoos have been observed ingesting clays in Papua New Guinea by Jared Diamond (Discover, 1998) as well as in Glenbrook in Blue Mountains of Australia by David W Cooper (Parrots Magazine, 2000). Pet birds are often permitted to ingest grit and bone, which they use not for nutrition but to store in their gizzards to aid in grinding the food they eat.

There is also evidence that supports the usefulness of the flora found in soil. Some have even suggested that it is useful, if not vital, in the establishment of healthy bacteria within the digestive tract, addressing the problems presented by Crohn's Disease and Leaky Gut Syndrome.

Cultural explanations for geophagy

The cultural meaning of dirt may be another factor that contributed to making geophagy an unacceptable practice. Western cultures view dirt as being filthy, especially after Germ Theory arose. Dirt is similar to miasma, in that theory, which is a place where diseases are made and spread. Eating the miasma would be heretical, if not suicidal. Furthermore, one overarching theme of Western culture is a distancing from the natural world and progress toward technology and efficiency. This movement would render geophagy unacceptable to Westerners. Evidence for this comes from the English language, with phrases like "dirt cheap" and "dirty dog." In non-western cultures, soil is thought of as being a provider for the Earth to grow, and therefore it has nutrients which can be absorbed. It came from a/the god(s) and nourishes the crops which feed the culture. In these cultures, the acceptance is not anly seen by secluded tribes, but it is also accepted into the market and into families. The persistence of geophagy within a family or community can also partially be explained by a simple mother/daughter sharing mechanism. An crucial and sometimes hazardous part of rural communities is the act of giving birth. Without advanced medical knowledge, local customs become key to a healthy outcome. Geophagy enters the picture when daughters would "follow the diet of a woman that they knew had been successful at giving birth".[4] The maternal chain can therefore act as an important vector in the continuance of this act. The practice, in truth, is important because it does provide much needed minerals to the human body. Indeed, Western cultures have continued the practice of geophagy, but only under the guise of vitamins and minerals.

Geophagy in the United States

Most non-western societies consider geophagy to be an adaptive, beneficial, and nutritional approach to promote health. Geophagy represents the fusion of societal nature and beliefs outside of the western world. Non westerners see dirt and clay as natural crucial elements of the world with symbolic features. This sharply contrasts the western view of dirt as impure and contaminated.[5] This given perception explains the western world's negative connotation and repulsion with geophagy. There are also several other reasons why geophagy is considered in America to be a pathology or an eating disorder. One such reason is that geophagy is strongly associated with a minority practice. It has a stigma of being an eating habit of African slaves and poor African-Americans. Geophagy was common among slaves who were nick-named "clay-eaters" because they had been known to consume clay, as well as spices, ash, shalk, grass, plaster, paint, and starch.[6] This stigma presents a road-block to the spreading of the practice of geophagy to the suburban white upper-middle class.[7] Geophagy has been declining because it is deemed socialy unacceptable to make dirt part of the diet.[8]

Another factor keeping geophagy out of common practice for Americans is likely its association with a female practice. Geophagy is often associated with women, and most commonly, pregnant women. This presents an issue as American culture does not regularly distinguish between male and female foods.[9] The dominant Victiorian ethic in American ideology is amongst the multiple reasons that "Geophagy" became stigmatized in American culture. An ability to control appetite coupled with eating seldomly was the appropriate measure of behavior in a "civilized' American culture. Engaging in and acting upon a craving for dirt was considered uncivilized because it was seen as having a lack of self-control. A person embodying the Victorian ethic would maintain a thin figure as well as refraining from alcohol and sex. Therefore, envoking the act of "geophagy", where craving and consumption of dirt was immense, was seen as a violation to the civilized American.[10]

The origin of geophagy in the United States

Many believe that the tradition of geophagy in the United States began with the importation of slaves from West Africa (Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis A. Frate, 414,1975). Known at the time as "Cachexia Africana," slaves frequently tried to compensate for their nutritionally deficient diets by eating vitamin-enriched clay. Many slave owners believed that Cachexia Africana caused illnesses among their slaves and implemented certain devices to restrict their slaves from consuming dirt. In the southern United States one specific device was the mouth lock; a face piece that prevented slaves from consuming anything other than their rationed meals (Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis A. Frate, 414,1975).

The future of geophagy in the United States

In the past, women who wanted to become pregnant followed the eating patterns of successful mothers instead of changing their diet according to medical studies and recommendations. As a result, geophagy has continued to pass from generation to generation, and eating dirt is relatively commonplace. Cooked, baked, and processed dirt and clay are sold in health food stores and rural flea markets in the South. Geophagy will continue to exist in the United States as long as people believe it is healthy and contains beneficial vitamins. However, researchers have noticed that geophagy is not as prevalent as it once was as rural Americans assimilate into urban culture. In order for geophagy to remain a part of American culture, more effective marketing strategies need to be implemented that fit into modern American culture.[11]

While the marketing of dirt in its original form iwould most likely not sell in the American market, geophagy may have a possible future if companies break up the dirt into its components. Several minerals or consitutents of dirt have varying theraputic purposes. For instance, antacids or anti-diarrhea mediciations contain several consitutents of dirt. Although the chalky pink liquid gives a very different impression to buyers than raw earth, Americans still practice geophaphy in a certain sense. Also, as described before, Americans regard the practice of digging raw dirt for consumption as a wholely uncivilized act. Yet, the American culture could potentially continue to practice geophagy if a company marketed the dirt. Americans seems to response greater to nautral products if they could purchase them from a catalog or store. Yhe future of geophagy in the United States seemingly depends upon scientific backing, and the creation of a market or company to provide the dirt to consumers. [12]


  1. Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 355
  2. Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?"
  3. Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 366
  4. Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 365
  5. Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 354
  6. Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 355
  7. Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 357
  8. Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 368
  9. Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 360
  10. Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 358-59
  11. Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 366-368
  12. Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 366-368
  • Wiley, Andrea S. "Geophagy." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. Ed. Solomon H. Katz. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003. 120-121.
  • Wiley, Andrea S., and Solomon H. Katz. "Geophagy in Pregnancy: A Test of a Hypothesis." Current Anthropology 39, no. 4 (1998): 532–545.
  • Lagercrantz, Sture. "Geophagical Customs in Africa and among the Negroes in America." Studia Ethnographica Upsaliensia 17 (1958): 24–81.
  • Callahan GN. Eating dirt. Emerg Infect Dis [serial online] 2003 Aug . Available from: URL:
  • Kwong, Alica M.; Henry, Jaques. "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?" Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplanary Journal.
  • Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis A. Frate. "Annals of the Association of American geographers." Vol.65 No.3, 1975. 414-416
  • Vemeer, Donald. 1971. "Geophagy Among the Ewe of Ghana." Ethnology 10:56-72.

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