Geophagy in Liberia
Paw-Toh: Is It Beneficial to Pregnant Women?
White clay or mud. Rolled up. Sun-dried. Broken into pieces. This is the substance that Liberians call Paw-Toh, and what many Liberian women crave and eat during their pregnancy. It is a normal craving. However, they aren’t the only people who practice this.
Many cultures worldwide have eaten clay and mud for centuries, from the ancient Greeks to the indigenous in the Americas. In most places the habit is limited to women, especially women who are pregnant or of childbearing age. Geophagy, the habit of eating clay, mud, or dirt, is also common in Sub-Saharan Africa, and many anthropologists believe it was brought to the United States by enslaved Africans. It is now most commonly found among African-American women in the rural South.
Experts says that geophagy is similar to pica, the abnormal urge to eat coin, paint, soap, or other non-food items. While medical professionals rarely, if ever, recommend the practice, some nutritionists now admit that eating clay may have some real health benefits. They believe that the binding effect of clay would possibly cause it to absorb toxins.
Glycoalkaloids, for example, a family of chemical compounds that come from alkaloids (a naturally occurring chemical compound) that sugar groups attach to, are commonly found in potatoes. These compounds can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and neurological problems in humans. But when South American Indians eat these potatoes in conjunction with alkaloid-binding clays, the potatoes are safe to consume. Medical professionals are also considering whether the minerals in some clays are particularly beneficial for pregnant women.
Erica Gibson-Staneland, an anthropologist at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., has found that geophagy is more often found in cultures that do not consume dairy as a regular part of their diet. In the face of dietary calcium deficiency, which dairy products such as milk and cheese provide, pregnant women may seek out other sources.
“It's about women lacking nutrients or women in impoverished conditions who don't have access to health care, adapting,” said Gibson-Staneland. “In Africa, they eat the dirt from termite mounds,” she added, noting that the dirt and clays from termite mounds are rich in minerals.
Liberia History and Culture