What’s for lunch? Sun-dried soil with salt, sugar

How’s this for a down-to-earth recipe?

Work a few handsful of clay mud into flat cookies or pancakes.

If desired, add small amounts of vegetable shortening, salt or sugar.

Dry them in the sun.

It probably doesn’t sound like anything you’re likely to serve at your next tea party, and it’s probably just as well.

These mud cookies have little or no nutritional value and are associated with various health problems.

Despite that, they’re not uncommon in Haiti, the poorest economy in the Western Hemisphere.

A survey in western Kenya a decade ago found that 73 percent of children five to 18 ate soil regularly, as did 56 percent of pregnant women.

There are also pockets of the culinary practice in the southern United States.

The consumption of dirt, whether by animals or humans, is known as geophagy or geophagia.

Geophagy among humans has been stigmatized in most of North America and Europe and looked upon as a form of pica, a disease that manifests itself as a pathological desire to eat non-food items.

However, most non-western societies consider geophagy to be an “adaptive, beneficial and nutritional” approach to promote health.

Peter Abrahams of the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University in Wales, said the generally negative view of geophagy is attributable largely to misunderstanding and ignorance.

“When soil consumption is undertaken in its proper context, geophagy should be appreciated generally as normal human behaviour,” he said in an e-mail interview.

However, he said the practice definitely carries risks and urged caution to anyone thinking about trying it.

“I would not encourage the eating of any soils unless prepared and eaten under controlled sanitary conditions,” he said.

Soil can be bought as a food product in certain types of shops, including health food stores, in certain parts of the world.

Abrahams said humans deliberately eat soil for a number of reasons:

• It is said to ease hunger pangs and fill the stomach during periods of famine;

• Ingested soil can detoxify certain food, such as wild potatoes in South America;

• It can be used as medicine to treat gastro-intestinal disorders. Clay related products are a part of digestive medicines such as Kaopectate;

• Eating soil can carry cultural and religious significance;

• Some say eating soil can reduce anxiety and assist pregnant African and African-American women deal with certain cravings;

• Ingested soil can be a source of mineral nutrients such as iron and calcium.

• Negative side-effects associated with eating soil include excessive tooth wear, intestinal blockage leading possibly to colon perforation, labour and childbirth problems, infection from parasites and worms, mineral nutrient deficiency and death.

Abrahams said education and modernization are leading to a decline in geophagy, but the properties of clay minerals make them useful as active and inert ingredients in modern drug formulations.

Children, even in North America, are also known to eat dirt with enthusiasm, but studies have been unable to determine whether that’s because of a biological imperative related to the content of dirt or the simple desire of children to put things in their mouths.