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What Is Geophagy?

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  • Written By: Eugene P.
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 25 August 2016
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Geophagy is the practice of eating clay,‭ ‬chalk and other forms of earth‭ ‬that are not‭ ‬generally considered part of a normal diet.‭ ‬Animals such as birds have been observed eating clay in various parts of the world.‭ ‬Humans also practice geophagy,‭ ‬sometimes because of malnutrition‭ ‬or‭ ‬as the result of a psychological condition called pica.‭ ‬Although it is possible to consume certain forms of earth with no ill effects,‭ ‬there still are health risks in doing so.‭ ‬In some instances,‭ ‬people willingly choose to practice geophagy and consider soil a valid culinary ingredient.

In the animal kingdom,‭ ‬different species have been witnessed eating chalk and clay.‭ ‬The exact purpose is not clear,‭ ‬but in some instances, it appears‭ ‬that the animals might be attempting to self-medicate themselves to relieve stomach pains.‭ ‬Other theories suggest that the animals ingest the earth to provide‭ ‬essential minerals that are not found in their typical diet.

In humans,‭ ‬there are several reasons that geophagy is practiced.‭ ‬One of the most studied causes is the psychological disorder called pica.‭ ‬Patients who suffer from pica have a compulsive urge to consume substances‭ ‬that are not‭ ‬commonly‭ ‬considered food or that have no nutritional value.‭ A person‭ ‬with pica might eat earth,‭ ‬rocks,‭ ‬clay or even sand.

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In nations‭ ‬where malnutrition is prevalent among the human population,‭ ‬soil and mud might be consumed out of necessity.‭ ‬There are some cultures in these countries that will mix mud with spices or sugar.‭ ‬The mud is‭ ‬then‭ ‬formed into cakes,‭ ‬dried in the sun‭ ‬and‭ ‬eaten as a meal.

Although there is evidence of geophagy existing in many places around the world,‭ ‬the danger to humans when ingesting earth can be significant.‭ ‬The clay or soil that is consumed could be contaminated with fecal matter from animals or sewage.‭ ‬There also are distinct forms of bacteria‭ ‬that exist naturally in the soil that can cause severe illness.‭ ‬One of the most immediate‭ ‬health‭ ‬threats from geophagy is intestinal blockage,‭ ‬a condition in which the ingested material forms a thick blockage in the digestive tract.

There is some archaeological evidence that geophagy‭ ‬occurred in prehistoric times.‭ ‬It has been theorized that humans developed prehistoric geophagy to absorb minerals that were required for survival ‬but were not readily available in the standard‭ ‬diet.‭ ‬Another theory suggests that the consumed‭ ‬clays could have been part of early‭ ‬medicinal practices.

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