Last year, I met a lady eating Nzu (clay), and she told me how addicted she was to it. According to her, she can consume a minimum of 20 in a day; 20 is her least for the day. I was so shocked because I had never heard such a thing before.
But since then and until now, I have discovered that a lot more people are addicted to this earthen substance. I know these people are not privy to the risk it portends for their health. This is why I decided to do this for just you, our readers.
Before we delve into it properly, I would like to help you understand certain things first. The practice of Nzu-eating, known as geophagy or geophagia, has long been a puzzle to Western medical practitioners. Until recently, eating Nzu, clay, chalk, soil, and other earth-related materials was an abnormal behaviour that deprived the diet of valuable nutrients.
In the southern United States, eating Nzu (clay) carried a stigma; those who ate clay were labeled “dirt eaters” or “clay eaters” and diagnosed with psychological disorders. “Pica,” the abnormal ingestion of non-food substances, remains an official diagnosis for those who eat Nzu, dirt, or soil, per the DSM IV and the American Dietetic Association.
In fact, eating Nzu (clay) is a global practice that has existed among humans since their evolution from primates and that continues today among traditional ethnic groups as well as numerous animal species.
The practice of eating Nzu (clay) has been studied in present-day and traditional cultures from areas across continents, including present-day Arizona and California, Central and South America, Sweden and Sardinia, sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia, and Australia.
Nzu, also known as ‘La craie, ‘Argile, calabash chalk, or Calabar stone, is a naturally occurring mineral consumed in most West African countries, especially in most communities in Nigeria, for pleasure and by pregnant women as a remedy for morning sickness.
This Nzu is a naturally occurring substance made up of fossilized seashells, but it can be prepared artificially. It is prepared using a combination of clay and mud, along with other ingredients such as sand, wood ash, and sometimes salt. This mixture is moulded and then heated to produce the final product in Nzu.
Arguably having a few health benefits (i.e., detoxifying effects, treating stomach disorders, and supply of micronutrients), calabash chalk (Nzu/Ulo) however poses the following adverse effects on health:
PRESENCE OF LEAD
Exposure to lead can result in some harmful effects, and a developing child is particularly at risk of effects on the brain and nervous system. Arsenic (which is also found in Nzu) is a carcinogen, and excessive long-term exposure to it has been associated with a range of adverse health effects, including cancers of the urinary bladder, lung, and skin.
The presence of lead in Nzu (clay) interferes with the bioavailability of micronutrients, leading to micronutrient deficiency. Lead occupies similar niches with iron in the human body and so competes with iron for absorption in the gut and uptake within the body.
Lead also reduces the production of red blood cells (erythropoiesis), their size (microcytic anemia), and their lifespan. I have seen ladies suffer anemia due to excessive consumption of this. They didn’t know until they consulted me after reading this post on my Facebook page.
CONTAMINATION WITH PATHOGENS
Research conducted in 2015 showed that those who eat Nzu (clay) could be more susceptible to worm infestation than those who do not eat it due to poor handling and exposure to the environment by the producers.
The presence of salt in some of them means that it is already a risky substance for those suffering from hypertension. Excessive consumption of salt is a risk to the heart. For pregnant mothers who consume it a lot, this can lead to the dreaded condition called pre-eclampsia (hypertension during pregnancy.
Having reviewed Nzu (clay) consumption and its adverse effects on unborn babies, their mothers, and other adults, we advise thus:
The addicted consumption of Nzu (clay) should be drastically reduced if not stopped completely.
The addicts should gradually reduce the number they consume daily and exchange it with a healthy nut, such as tiger nut, or any other one that is preferable and affordable for them. I know many of you, especially the ladies, are addicted to it, but you need to reduce your intake and ensure you are reducing the amount you consume gradually.
Author: Soromfechi Okereke (RDN)