Do you remember your childhood days, playing in the puddles and making mud pies after a good summer rain? There was always one kid that would actually try to eat the mud pie. (No comment on whether I was that kid or not.) Well instead of making fun of that kid, maybe we should have been imitating him. Turns out eating dirt might be good for your health after all.
“Mud cakes,” clay mixed with salt and shortening, appeared in the news quite a bit after the Haiti earthquake. Often called “bon bons de terre” (or earthy bons bons), they are baked in the sun then sold dirt cheap. (Pardon the pun.) Following the earthquake there were headlines like “Haitians So Poor They Resort to Eating Dirt”and “Dirt Poor Haitians Eat Mud Pies.” It tugged and pulled at your heartstrings imagining these people so hungry that they’re eating the dirt off the ground. While there is truth to the fact that this did happen more due to poverty, that isn’t always the case. Many cultures actually eat dirt not to satisfy their hunger, but perhaps as a way of staying healthy.
1. PREVENT PARASITES & PATHOGENS
According to Dr. Sera Young of Cornell University, the most likely of the theories is that eating mud protects the body from pathogens, parasites, and plant toxins. It’s suspected to be due to the clay’s ability to bind things — perhaps the clay is binding the toxins before they can make you sick. This theory would explain why children and pregnant women are the most common dirt eaters; they are the most susceptible to illness. Clay may even have properties that protect against malaria.
2. MAKING INEDIBLE FOODS EDIBLE
Several ancient cultures cooked food like potatoes, acorns, and bread in clay to protect themselves from toxic alkaloids and tannic acids that typically make certain foods inedible. Glycoalkaloids, for example, are commonly found in potatoes and can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and neurological problems in humans. Tannic acid makes acorns inedible, but Native Americans used to mix them with clay, thus allowing them to be a source of nourishment.
3. NATURAL MINERAL BOOST
Another theory that looks at the same group of mud cake eaters, pregnant women and children, is that of nutrition. “Mineral demand goes up substantially during pregnancy. Soil is nature’s multi-mineral supply,” states Dr. David L. Katz of the Yale School of Medicine. In addition geophagy is more common in cultures that don’t eat dairy. Clay contains calcium, along with iron and zinc. Some argue against this theory citing that clay acts as a binder, meaning it might impair mineral absorption, as opposed to increase it.
4. IMPROVE IMMUNITY
Eating dirt could perhaps be good for our health in another way: By building our immune system. Have you heard of the “hygiene hypothesis?” It’s the idea that we’re actually too clean. We aren’t exposing our kids to enough dirt and germs early on when their immune systems are developing, and therefore they end up getting sick easier. The widespread use of antibacterial soaps and sanitizers adds to the problem. Kids raised in rural areas, like farms, typically suffer from fewer allergies and autoimmune diseases, perhaps because they’re exposed to more dirt. One researcher theory is that eating dirt is simply a way of building immune resistance. This again explains why the habit of eating dirt seems to appear most in pregnant women and children.
5. EASING STOMACH DISCOMFORT
Yet another health benefit of dirt: stomach health. The main component in clay, especially the white-colored clays, is kaolin. Kaolin is what’s used to make Rolaids, Maalox, and Kaopectate, all medications to help ease an upset stomach. They work due to kaolin’s binding effect. Although mud may be a good anti-diarrhea agent, too much could cause the opposite problem: constipation.
6. PROBIOTIC PROPERTIES
Dirt may also contain probiotic priorities. Probiotics are a good form of bacteria that helps keep our gut healthy. Dirt is proposed to have something similar to probiotics, called homeostatic soil organisms. This healthy flora may aid stomach problems like leaky gut syndrome and Crohn’s Disease. Clay may be more like a mud mask for the gut.
7. ANTI-NAUSEA REMEDY
One final theory? Dirt may be a natural antacid and antiemetic. Pregnant women tend to suffer from nausea, vomiting, and heartburn during pregnancy. Eating dirt may be a way of soothing the stomach.
So, you want a side of mud with your next meal?