Chapter 2. Everybody Eats Clay
There are many reasons why so many people of different ages, cultures, and races eat clay. Do these earth--eaters know something most people don’t?
Yes, they do. Now you will know, too.
I have found eight basic reasons why people eat clay. In fact, humans have been eating dirt for a very long time. There is good evidence to suggest that we were chomping on mud two million years ago.(1)
2. Medicinal uses
4. Mineral deficiency and supplementation
5. Religious rites
6. Famine food
7. Use in pregnancy
8. A food delicacy
Clay eating has nothing to do with climate, geography, culture, race, or creed. It is found in the most “civilized” countries, where people like you or me who live in the Western world consume, and among the most “primitive” tribes in far remote places in the word. The habit does not belong to any particular group, so no one can be clearly branded as clay--eaters and non--clay--eaters. In any one family, some persons will eat clay, and while others will outright refuse. The habit is an individual one.
Human beings have many inborn behaviors, or instincts. For instance, it is our very character to taste and test anything offered to us by nature; and eating clay, mud, or rocks is no more surprising than eating salt, herbs, chewing gum, tobacco, cows, or snails. These behaviors don’t appear to be acquired through experience. Instead, they are most likely “in the genes” and are passed on from one generation to the next.
According to Donald Vermeer, an anthropologist and a pioneer in the study of geophagy, many dirt--eaters in urban settings turn to the consumption of laundry starch or baking soda for want of clay. On a related note, many pregnant women feel the instinctual need to eat clay although they might not be fully able to articulate the reason for the desire.
Throughout human history naturally occurring toxins have placed constraints on what types of plants people could consume. Clay eating provided the person with a certain degree of protection, allowing greater flexibility of choice in their diet. People did not possess a deep scientific understanding of why they ate clay or could pinpoint what exactly was the healthful effect. More than likely, talk to someone who eats clay, ask them why they do it, and you’d be apt to receive a shrug with a response like, “Not sure why I eat clay, but I do.”
Interestingly, in an article published in The Quarterly Review of Biology, geophagists are said to be highly selective about the earth that they eat. In 237 of 243 cultural reports (98%), there was a preference for earth that was clay--like or smooth, rather than gritty and sandy. Intuition strikes again leading the earth eater towards clay in particular versus the plain old dirt in the school play yard.(2)
To help us to understand why instinct might play a role in the decision to eat dirt, we are led to this action by one of three reasons:
1. A response to hunger where clay has traditionally been used in times of famine and drought.
2. Micronutrient deficiencies such as iron or calcium, which is particularly high in clay.
3. And the clay’s healthful protection against harm from toxins and pathogens.(3)
2. Medicinal Uses
The earth itself may be the world’s oldest medicine. Clay eating has apparently been a recommended medicine for thousands of years. Most of us have not heard about it, since such recommendations have been practically swept under the rug in western medicine. However, the practice of eating clay is ultimately rooted in its medicinal value and dates back long before medicine in the modern world came into being.
Many think of soil as lifeless dirt. On the contrary, it is teaming with a rich array of microbial life. Recently, National Institute of Health (NIH) funded researchers discovered a new class of antibiotics, called malacidins, by analyzing the DNA of the bacteria living in more than 2,000 soil samples, including many sent by citizen scientists living all across the United States.(4) They established a website with a clever, easy-to-understand name, DrugsFromDirt, where they solicit soil samples from around the world to advance the discovery of therapeutic agents from dirt.(5)
If we go back through our history books, we’ll see that the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates (460--370 BC), who is traditionally regarded as the father of medicine, reportededly was the first to write about geophagy. Later, Galen, a great 2nd century AD Greek physician, introduced eating Armenian earth into medical practice to cure all sorts of ills, including acne and hemorrhoids. There was also a famous Taoist nicknamed Mud--pill Ch’en, known for his successful healing treatments with clay, who cured diseases thought incurable in his time.
Incidentally, clay has always been touted as a cure for healing intestinal ailments. Mahatma Gandhi recommended earth to overcome constipation. And an institute in France uses clay in the manufacture of medicines to control and alleviate diarrhea in infants and adults. But that’s not all. On some islands in the South, the people have this cure for cholera: leaves of an herb are placed in a jar of water with a ball of clay suspended above the preparation. The leaves are boiled, the ball of clay is crushed and stirred into the water, and this concoction is given to the patient to drink.
There are virtually thousands of ethnomedicine anecdotes to share from all over the world and provide insight into why the clays are consumed.
The concept of edible clay for health purposes is becoming a more popular item in the health food stores as the word regarding its detoxicant properties is getting around. Clay may protect against toxins and pathogens by a.) strengthening the mucosal layer by binding with mucin and/or stimulating mucin production, thereby reducing the permeability of the gut wall, and b.) binding to toxin and pathogens directly, there by rendering them unabsorbable by the gut.(6)
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published an article on clay eating and detoxification (Timothy and Duquette 1991). Among the many examples listed by the authors, the following anecdotes are some of the more striking evidence for body purification through the use of clay.
When the Pomo Indians of California consumed clay with traditionally bitter and toxic types of acorns, the clay adsorbed the poisons and eliminated the bitterness. The Indians were able to survive on a staple food that, without clay, would have posed a serious potential threat to their health.
In an experiment performed under laboratory conditions, rats voluntarily ate clay in response to gastrointestinal problems induced by poisoning. Further examples cited chimpanzees who voluntarily eat clay after ingesting plant foods loaded with toxins. The article concluded that clays could adsorb dietary toxins known to induce stomach pain and vomiting, bacterial toxins associated with gastrointestinal disturbance, hydrogen ions in acidosis, or metabolic toxins such as steroidal metabolites associated with pregnancy. All these conditions result in a host of common symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea---in short, symptoms of toxic overload which make for a pretty horrific eating experience.
Many human food plants produce toxic chemicals, such as tannins and glycoalkaloids to protect themselves from biotic enemies (pathogens and herbivores). Other sources of harmful chemicals in the human diet are enterotoxins secreted by food and waterborne bacteria. Ingestion of these toxins can cause gastrointestinal distress, dizziness, and muscle pains. In sufficient quantities they can be mutagenic, carcinogenic, or deadly. Here geophagic earth, especially if its clay rich, may be protective.(7)
4. Mineral Deficiency and Supplementation
Clay provides an impressive assortment of minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, sulfur, manganese, and silica as well as trace elements---those appearing in very tiny amounts. Without the basic minerals, life cannot exist; without the trace minerals, major deficiencies will develop. The lack of either will make it impossible for the body to maintain good health.
Most people don’t realize the importance of mineral supplementation and underestimate their legitimacy and use. The body cannot manufacture its own minerals and is reliant on external sources to meet its need. Our requirement for minerals is as important as our need for air or water.
“The body can tolerate a deficiency of vitamins for a longer period of time than it can a deficiency of minerals. A slight change in the blood concentration of important minerals may rapidly endanger life,” says F. P. Anita, M.D., in his book Clinical Dietetics and Nutrition.(8)
Furthermore, mineral deficiencies can exacerbate symptoms caused by vitamin deficiency.
Accordingly, clay has been used by many tribes and cultures in the treatment of anemia and other mineral deficiencies given its higher iron and calcium content.
5. Religious Rites
Many religions have made a positive connection between earth eating and spiritual and physical healing. Holy clay, the name for certain types of earth, is viewed as an extension of religious symbols through which transformation can take place. In Esquipulas, Guatemala, home of the St. Esquipulas shrine, 5.7 million holy clay tablets are produced annually! The evolution of the Christian shrine here may have “Christianized” clay consumption. The tablet is seen as an extension of the power of the shrine and is believed to cure many illnesses, including ailments of the stomach, heart, eyes, and pelvis.
The tablets are prepared by hand, and pictures are carved on them. Two examples of the carvings include the crucifixion and resurrection. Stains of candy--makers’ red dye are then daubed onto the tablets to represent the blood and wounds of Jesus. Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church has indeed blessed medicinal clay tablets since the earliest days of Christianity, a millennium and a half before the statue of Esquipulas was carved.
Earth eating is also connected with religious belief among the Arabs and Muslims. In Mecca, clay is sold and stamped with the Arabic inscription “In the name of Allah! Dust of our land [mixed] with the saliva of some of us.” It is thought that anyone who consumes this clay shares his or her spirit with Allah.
Food Grass, tree bark, wild herbs, weeds, and earth have always been primary food substitutes in famine times. With the threat of undernutrition, human beings will take whatever they can get their hands on---that is, anything to satisfy the stomach. Clay has been highly valued as a famine food because of its ability to calm hunger pangs and provide a source of mineral supplementation. After eating clay, one feels full and, strangely, satisfied.
During a famine in China, one group sold what were called stone--cakes, which consisted of wood, pounded into dust and mixed with millet husks, then baked. It didn’t look too bad, but it tasted like what it was---dust. Elsewhere, during the same famine, people made flour out of ground leaves, clay, and flower seeds. This was eaten as the daily diet until food could be found.
Different groups had many creative names for such food, calling it “mineral--flour,” “earth--rice,” or “stone--meal.” As far back as 1911, over a century ago, the French anthropologist F. Gaud reported that in periods of famine, the Mana peoples of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, “gather the earth of termites’ nests and consume it mixed with water and powdered tree--bark”.(9) There have been thousands of references in research reports documenting this similar type of activity where there is craving and eating of clays from anthills and termite mounds in not only humans but animals.
This practice is remarkably similar to what was once practiced in Europe, where clay, referred to as “mountain meal”, was eaten in times of war and deprivation.
7. Use in Pregnancy
Clay eating amongst pregnant women is common in many cultures around the globe. In some African countries, prevalence of up to 84% has been observed. In Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa, the prevalence of geophagy in pregnancy has been estimated at 50%.(10)
A high prevalence of clay eating when pregnant has been observed in sub--Saharan Africa with pregnant women citing nausea, vomiting, heart burn, and the need relief from stress, as reasons for engaging in earth eating. For instance, nearly half of the pregnant women and over 70% of school children in Kenya consumer earth.(11)
In Malaysia, clay is eaten to help secure pregnancy by women who want to bear children. In New Guinea, pregnant women eat clay because they consider it good for the fetus. In Russia, one tribe considers clay placed on the tongue to be a good means of expediting birth and expelling the afterbirth. It is also taken to combat morning sickness.
People are quick to dismiss the earth cravings of pregnant women, since they often have strange cravings. In modern literature and most societies, eating earth has been largely depicted as a behavior limited to the deprived. However, this practice is common, although a less queried phenomenon. But given the evidence from around the world, this practice doesn’t seem so strange after all---just misunderstood.
8. A Food Delicacy
Did you ever hear of eating chocolate--covered ants? As kids we used to joke about eating insects. As adults, we laugh about it when we see entrepreneurs selling cricket flour on the television show, Shark Tank.
But in India and Africa, however, this is no joking matter but a serious delicacy. People go to white ants’ nests and eat the soil with the white ants included, sometimes adding honey to the preparation. They believe it’s good for strength and energy.
I personally find the subject matter of entomotherapy, the medicinal use of insects and entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, to be enthralling. Reflecting on my own thought patterns and predilections to all things natural, it’s strange that I have never had an aversion to eating clay, but don’t share this same characteristic when it comes to chewing on a beetle sitting at my front door. At my work with the Butterfly Wonderland attraction in Scottsdale, Arizona, we developed a “bug vending machine” and teach our guests why people around the world eat bugs. I personally purchased a few items here and there from the vending machine, but mostly as gag gifts. From an academic standpoint, however, I can appreciate the science--based data that supports the consumption of insects and keep an open mind.
Now, back to clay . . . along the north coast of New Guinea, the people eat earth as a type of sweetmeat. The taste varies from faintly sweet to one very much like chocolate. Another group nearby takes pains to roll and form clay into disks and tubes, then cover the cakes with a solution of salt, smear them with coconut oil, and then roast and eat them.
While you and I would rather eat a piece of cake or a bag of chips as a snack, for many people around the world, clay with honey and sugar would be preferred. It sounds strange to us, but in cultures whose palates have not been adjusted to artificial flavors and sweeteners, clay for dessert is a sure treat--and a healthy, low--calorie one at that!