Why Some Americans Eat White Dirt

Woman from the Southern United States eating white dirt.

Woman from the Southern United States eating white dirt.

“I remember my mom and my aunties eating that white dirt like it was nothing,” Mamie Lee Hillman told NPR. “It was an acceptable thing that people did.” Hillman was raised in Greene County, Georgia, where she recalls digging for dirt to snack on. White dirt is chalky, soft clay called kaolinite that is common throughout the world, but has large deposits in the southeastern United States.

The practice of eating dirt may seem antiquated or bizarre to most people, however this behavior is fairly common. Today, especially in the South of the United States, you can find packaged bags of dirt for sell as ‘novelty items’ in small shops and flea markets.

It was the selling of dirt as a snack food that caught the attention of Adam Forrester, a filmmaker and assistant professor of photography at Troy University. His new documentary, Eat White Dirt, will profile this hidden, but common behavior.


NPR reports, the practice of dirt eating is at least 2 million years old, when Homo sapiens were only Homo habilis. Sera Young, Nutritional Anthropologist at Cornell University, mentions that eating dirt is the result of a disorder called pica. Pica forms as the result of a severe mineral deficiency that can occur because of a lack of iron or during pregnancy.

People with pica crave non-food items like ice, charcoal, and starch. Dr. Young notes that when asked why they enjoy eating dirt, people with pica simply don’t have answer.

One theory on why dirt eating has persisted is that clay acts as a natural filter that, when ingested, acts as a “mud mask for the gut,” and binds harsh chemicals in the intestines before they can enter the bloodstream. This theory may seem far-fetched, but recent tests have shown that rats that eat kaolin are less susceptible to death or disease when exposed to various poisons.

Because of its binding properties, however, clay will also absorb good nutrients and can contribute to other illnesses like anemia.

Dr. Young estimates that hundreds of thousands of people are affected by cravings caused by pica, especially pregnant women whose immune systems are suppressed as a biological precaution during pregnancy. Yet little is really known about the disorder because sufferers are embarrassed by their compulsion.

Forrester hopes that his film will shed more light on the practice. Eat White Dirt will premiere in select venues this summer.

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Satina Stewart

Freelance writer/Copywriter
Satina is a freelance writer dedicated to sharing her passion for writing with others. She specializes in blog writing and press release writing. Satina is the author of several e-books and also writes scripts, fiction/non-ficiton, and auto-biographies. Satina graduated with a bachelors degree in Radio, Television, and Film from the University of Texas in Austin. Later she received a masters degree from Indiana University in Telecommunications Management.


  1. Great article, I didn’t know people actually ate dirt and buy it from flea markets! Great to hear some alternative news!

  2. Having lived in the Southern US my entire life, I have never once heard of anyone eating dirt for any reason. This is neither hidden nor common behavior anywhere in the US. I don’t doubt that people once ate dirt, but to say that this is some kind of normal behavior or secret indulgent is….well….pretty hilarious.

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