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The prevalence and practice of geophagia in Mkhanyakude District of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

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Geophagia is defined as the practice of eating soil and occurs in the whole world. Literature suggests that there are potential advantages and disadvantages of geophagia, including nutritional benefits and harm to human health, respectively. The suggested effects of geophagia on human nutrition and health seem to vary with type of soil eaten and other factors such as the intensity of the practice. On the other hand, it is not clear whether or not soil consumers are aware of the potential effects of geophagia on their health. Whatever perceptions the soil consumers have with regard to geophagia may depend on several factors, including socio-cultural factors and their level of scientific education. The aim of this study was to investigate the prevalence and practice of geophagia in Mkhanyakude District, and the perceptions of the soil consumers about the practice. A total of 94 women from Mkhanyakude District were interviewed with the aim of investigating the occurrence of geophagia, determining its prevalence and investigating perceptions about the practice. A combination of both qualitative and quantitative study design was used. Qualitative methods (based on literature) were used to enable the understanding of the feelings, values and perceptions that underlie geophagia. Furthermore quantitative methods (expressed by means of statistical data) were used because of the biographical information e.g. gender, age, education level and income that was requested from respondents. Samples of Soil samples used for geophagia were analysed for microbial load and mineral composition. The majority of the respondents were unemployed and single women, with half of them reporting the consumption of soil, which they indicated was motivated by several factors, advice from relatives and pregnancy being the major ones. The frequency of eating soil ranged from 4-10 times per day and the amount eaten per day ranged from 57 g to 88 g. The majority (33.0%) of the soil consumers preferred red, black and brown coloured soils- red soils were the most consumed. The methods of collecting soil reported include digging with a knife and hand hoe, buying from street vendors, collecting from house walls and selective picking by hand. The local name for the soil used for geophagia included umcaka, isiduli, ibomvu, isibomvu, isidaka, umgabadi, ihlabathi and inkwali. The majority (87.2%) of the respondents indicated that they perceived eating soil as not helpful, but as an addiction like smoking, because it had bad consequences like cancer, acute bladder pains, appendicitis, painful heavy bleeding during menstruation, painful defecation, gallstones, fibroids, blood stool, worms and stomach pains. The findings of the study indicated that the microbial content of the soil varied with soil type (9.3x103 cfu/g to 2.4x1010 cfu/g in high clay content soil and low clay content soil, respectively), indicating that high clay soils had the lowest microbial content. Therefore, further studies should be conducted to identify different microbial species present in these soils, especially those that are pathogenic to human health. The soils consumed contained several minerals, including nutrients such as zinc, and mineral composition varied with soil type. Soil samples with the highest zinc content were from Somkhele (15.00 mg/kg), Ibomvu (1.94 mg/kg), Tin town (1.57 mg/kg) and Mbhodla (1.20 mg/kg) had medium zing amounts. The soil samples with low zinc content were from Bhambanana (0.08 mg/kg). However, the mineral nutrients identified in the soils did not meet daily recommended intake. Health education is highly recommended for geophagists to improve their awareness with regard to geophagia. In addition, baking of the soil used for geophagia is also recommended to reduce the risk of microbial infection.


M. Sc. Hum. Nut. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg 2014.


Nutrition disorders--KwaZulu-Natal., Soils--Health aspects--KwaZulu-Natal., Geophagy--KwaZulu-Natal., Pica (Pathology)--KwaZulu-Natal., Food habits--KwaZulu-Natal--Psychology., Rural poor--KwaZulu-Natal., Theses--Dietetics and human nutrition.