Practice of dirt-eating dying out

Arlene Shorter is a recovering addict of

sorts - hooked on dirt, not drugs.

"There was something in the dirt that would just keep me coming

back to it," the 49-year-old says of her former craving.

At about age 30, Shorter became hooked on eating dirt from

nearby cotton fields and her mother's garden in her hometown of

Anguilla, a tiny Mississippi Delta town.

Before dirt, the contract coordinator at University of Illinois

at Chicago said she was a fan of Argo Starch, which at the time was

"clumpy." In her 30s, she switched to dirt when the starch began

being manufactured in a powder form that wasn't appealing to her.

Dirt satisfied her need for the "crunch" of hard starch.

Geophagia, the practice of eating dirt, was once widespread

around the world, dating back to philosopher Aristotle who observed

Greek women eating clay, said Dr. Dennis Frate, a medical

anthropologist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Geophagia is a form of pica, a nutritional eating disorder

characterized by the persistent eating of non-food items.

The last dirt eater Frate interviewed was in 2000 in Holmes

County. That person had her own dirt site in her garden, but

remarked that her daughters did not want to take up the practice,

Frate said.

"It is very hard to find a dirt eater," Frate said. "That

generation is dying out and it is not being picked up by the more

educated people."

"That practice has a bad reputation and bad connotation," he


Public health departments in the Mississippi River Delta

counties also report a decline in patients eating dirt.

In Leflore County, health officials said there has been a

noticeable reduction in cases of geophagia in the past five years

and that less than 20 percent of their patients have problems with

eating non-food items - especially ice and cornstarch.

The number of patients with geophagia has remained about the

same in the past five years in Montgomery County, according to the

health department's dietitian Lynn Burney.

Burney said about 5 percent of maternity patients she has

treated still eat dirt. Primarily, she said, her geophagia patients

learned to eat dirt from their parents.

Patients receiving kidney dialysis sometimes crave dirt, said

Lynda Richards, director of Patient Services at the National Kidney

Foundation of Mississippi. There is no known reason why, she added.

Dr. Joseph Vassalotti, the National Kidney Foundation's chief

medical officer, said dirt cravings among dialysis patients is

"not exactly a major public health issue," instead more of a


"The causes are behavioral and/or medical. The treatment would

be to provide education regarding potential gastrointestinal

complications, address mental illness/anxiety and treat underlying

conditions like iron deficiency and electrolyte abnormalities,"

Vassalotti said in a statement to The Associated Press.

In 1971, Frate participated in a federally funded nutrition

project in Holmes County. Part of the study addressed geophagia.

The study found that some residents in the rural, largely poor

region consumed a fine clay that was similar to chalk dust. It was

referred to as "dirt," Frate said. The clay was treated as a food

item with most of dirt-eaters surveyed adding vinegar to increase

the sour taste already found in the material. Half of those that

added vinegar also added salt. The moist dirt was also commonly

baked in an oven.

"Clay has a high proportion of moisture of water. Baking it

hardens it," Frate said.

The study also showed black women were more likely to eat dirt,

though it was practiced by both sexes in West Africa. Dirt-eating

was determined to be a cultural practice passed down from mother to

daughter, Frate said.

"Back in 1971 it was not unusual to walk the streets and see

some women eating and sharing a bag of dirt," Frate said.

A separate component of the study collected data on pregnant

women and found that 40 percent of pregnant women admitted to

eating dirt.

Certain sections of Holmes County got a reputation, like a good

restaurant, for having tasty dirt, he said. At times people would

be prompted to smell the dirt.

Frate said at the time of the study, he had witnessed people

lining up, like at a drive-thru restaurant, to pick up dirt at a

favorite site.

It was common decades ago for people to ship boxes of dirt to

Chicago where many central Mississippi residents had migrated.

"They missed the dirt," Frate said.

While attending DePaul University in Illinois, Shorter used her

breaks to visit family and pack enough dirt to last her until her

next trip home.

"No little bag for me because this had to last a long time,"

she said.

Shorter said while she was eating dirt she had an iron

deficiency that required her to have blood transfusions.

While iron deficiencies have been speculated as causes for

geophagia, Frate said he found no direct links, noting that most

iron deficient people he studied were men who did not eat dirt.

While Frate doesn't recommend anyone eating dirt, the study

didn't show visible medical problems associated with the practice.

Shorter said constipation was the main side-effect.

"Just take something for it and when you're done in the

bathroom, go out and get some more dirt," Shorter said.

With the addition of pesticides to soils, Frate says more health

issues could develop for people who eat dirt. Pesticides were one

of the reasons Shorter said she stopped eating the substance. After

taking iron supplements to improve her iron counts, Shorter said

she no longer craves dirt.

"I have absolutely no couldn't even give it to me.

I couldn't even put it in my mouth," Shorter said.