Eating Dirt: It Might Be Good for You

It melts in your mouth like chocolate, says Ruth Anne T. Joiner, describing her favorite treat.

"The good stuff is real smooth," she adds. "It's just like a piece of candy."

Joiner is describing the delectable taste of dirt -- specifically, clay from the region around her home in Montezuma, Ga.

While most people would recoil at the thought of eating mud or clay, some medical experts say it may be beneficial, especially for pregnant women.

"Every time I get pregnant, I get a craving -- I have to eat it," says Joiner, 40, who has given birth to four healthy babies.

"If I could get just one little bitty piece, that would stop the craving," she says. "It has a fresh, natural-feeling taste, like the rain or something."

Healthy Habit or Mental Illness?

The habit of eating clay, mud or dirt is known as geophagy. Some experts lump it into the same category as pica, which is the abnormal urge to eat coins, paint, soap or other non-food items.

Cultures worldwide have practiced geophagy for centuries, from the ancient Greeks to Native Americans. In most places the habit is limited to women, especially women who are pregnant or of childbearing age.

The practice is common in sub-Saharan Africa, and many anthropologists believe geophagy was brought to the United States by African slaves. It is now most commonly found among African-American women in the rural South.

Though the practice is rarely if ever recommended by medical professionals, some nutritionists now admit the habit of eating clay may have some real health benefits.

"It is possible that the binding effect of clay would cause it to absorb toxins," said Dr. David L. Katz, nutrition expert at the Yale School of Medicine and a medical contributor for ABC News.

Clay's ability to absorb plant toxins is well documented. Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and author of "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" has written on clays that are especially good at binding with plant toxins.

Diamond notes that many traditional cultures cook food like potatoes, acorns and bread in clay as a way of protecting against the toxic alkaloids and tannic acids that would otherwise make these foods inedible.

Glycoalkaloids, for example, are commonly found in potatoes and can cause diarrhea, vomiting and neurological problems in humans. But when South American Indians eat these potatoes in combination with alkaloid-binding clays, the potatoes are safe to consume, according to Diamond.

Dirt: The World's First Mineral Supplement

Medical professionals studying geophagy are also considering whether the minerals in some clays are especially beneficial for pregnant women.

"Mineral supplements are a pretty new phenomenon," said Katz. "Mineral demand goes up substantially during pregnancy."

"Soil is nature's multi-mineral supply," he added, "and nature favors behaviors that lead to survival. It may simply be that women who had this craving were more likely to survive and pass on this tendency to their offspring."

Mineral content in clays vary from region to region, but many contain high levels of calcium, iron, copper and magnesium. These are essential minerals for the human diet but even more critical during pregnancy.

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