Oct. 3, 2005 — -- 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."
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.