JOURNAL ARTICLE

Toward a comprehensive approach to the collection and analysis of pica substances, with emphasis on geophagic materials

Sera L Young, M Jeffrey Wilson, Dennis Miller, Stephen Hillier
PloS One 2008 September 5, 3 (9): e3147
18773081

BACKGROUND: Pica, the craving and subsequent consumption of non-food substances such as earth, charcoal, and raw starch, has been an enigma for more than 2000 years. Currently, there are little available data for testing major hypotheses about pica because of methodological limitations and lack of attention to the problem.

METHODOLOGY: In this paper we critically review procedures and guidelines for interviews and sample collection that are appropriate for a wide variety of pica substances. In addition, we outline methodologies for the physical, mineralogical, and chemical characterization of these substances, with particular focus on geophagic soils and clays. Many of these methods are standard procedures in anthropological, soil, or nutritional sciences, but have rarely or never been applied to the study of pica.

PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Physical properties of geophagic materials including color, particle size distribution, consistency and dispersion/flocculation (coagulation) should be assessed by appropriate methods. Quantitative mineralogical analyses by X-ray diffraction should be made on bulk material as well as on separated clay fractions, and the various clay minerals should be characterized by a variety of supplementary tests. Concentrations of minerals should be determined using X-ray fluorescence for non-food substances and inductively coupled plasma-atomic emission spectroscopy for food-like substances. pH, salt content, cation exchange capacity, organic carbon content and labile forms of iron oxide should also be determined. Finally, analyses relating to biological interactions are recommended, including determination of the bioavailability of nutrients and other bioactive components from pica substances, as well as their detoxification capacities and parasitological profiles.

SIGNIFICANCE: This is the first review of appropriate methodologies for the study of human pica. The comprehensive and multi-disciplinary approach to the collection and analysis of pica substances detailed here is a necessary preliminary step to understanding the nutritional enigma of non-food consumption.

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