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,
"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
"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
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
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,"
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 desire...you couldn't even give it to me.