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Health risks from lost awareness of cultural behaviours rooted in traditional medicine: An insight in geophagy and mineral intake

Frazzoli, Chiara, Pouokam, Guy Bertrand, Mantovani, Alberto, Orisakwe, Orish Ebere
The Science of the total environment 2016 v.566-567 pp. 1465-1471
bioavailability, chemistry, children, cultural behavior, diet, economic development, gender, geophagia, lactation, metabolism, minerals, motivation, nutrient deficiencies, organic compounds, pathogens, pregnancy, risk, risk assessment, risk management, socioeconomic status, soil, traditional medicine, women
The term geophagy is applied to the recurrent intentional eating of soil with multifactorial motivation. Geophagists are generally defined by gender (women), age (children), physical status (e.g. pregnancy, lactation, postpartum), social status (people exposed to significant nutritional deficiencies), and culture, but lost awareness of traditional medical meaning of this practice is changing these consumption patterns and increasing health risks. Moreover, although the holistic anthropological perspective recognizes soil consumption as mineral supplementation under certain circumstances, we should consider how the living environment has changed and is changing, along with diet, nutrition requirements, and habits. Therefore, benefits-to-risks ratio of cultural behaviours initiated centuries ago based on traditional medical practices requires deep revision and assessment. Knowledge on minerals metabolism, bioavailability and interactions is required to properly assess the role of geophagy in a balanced and safe intake of micronutrients. Most important, the risk of unbalanced intake of minerals may be serious since the mineralogy and chemistry of geophagic clays are uncontrolled, variable, and difficult to standardize. In addition, other factors (radioactive materials, organic chemicals and soil pathogens) complicate the risk assessment for population groups consuming soil. Since the geophagic practice is expected to persist despite economic development, the paper discusses the multifaceted spectrum of geophagy to highlight critical aspects for risk management.