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Adaptive function of soil consumption: An in vitro study modeling the human stomach and small intestine

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Author: Dominy, N.J. · Davoust, E. · Minekus, M.
Institution: TNO Voeding
Source:Journal of Experimental Biology, 2, 207, 319-324
Identifier: 237555
doi: doi:10.1242/jeb.00758
Keywords: Nutrition · Physiological Sciences · Alkaloid · Diet · Geophagy · Human · Pica · Tannin · kaolin · quinine · tannin derivative · adaptation · adsorption · article · audiovisual equipment · bioavailability · chemistry · comparative study · feeding behavior · human · physiology · small intestine · soil · Adaptation, Physiological · Adsorption · Biological Availability · Feeding Behavior · Humans · Intestine, Small · Kaolin · Models, Anatomic · Quinine · Soil · Tannins · Cinchona pubescens · Pica · Primates


Despite occurring in a wide variety of taxa, deliberate soil consumption (geophagy) is a poorly understood behavior. In humans, geophagy is sometimes considered aberrant or a sign of metabolic dysfunction. However, geophagy is normally assigned an adaptive function in nonhuman primates and various other organisms. One hypothesis submits that clay-rich soil adsorbs intestinal insults, namely plant metabolites or diarrhoea-causing enterotoxins. Here we test the capacity of kaolin, a commonly ingested clay, to adsorb quinine (an alkaloid) and two types of tannin (digestion-inhibitors). Trials were conducted in vitro using the TNO Intestinal Model, a device that closely simulates digestion by the human stomach and small intestine. Kaolin reduced the bioavailability of each compound by ≤30%. However, because we could not replicate clay-epithelial adhesion and reduced motility, these results may underestimate adsorption in vivo. We also show that kaolin fails to render calcium oxalate soluble. We conclude that gastrointestinal adsorption is the most plausible function of human geophagy. Adaptive advantages include greater exploitation of marginal plant foods and reduced energetic costs of diarrhoea, factors that could account for the high frequency of geophagy in children and pregnant women across the tropics.