"Nutrition: An Urge for Argo," from Time Magazine Friday, Jul. 28, 1967: When I'm pregnant, it's just like taking dope," said the Negro woman bearing her ninth child at the District of Columbia General Hospital in Washington. "I can hardly wait to get home so I can get some more starch," she added, referring not to starchy foods but to laundry starch. "Sometimes I'll eat two or three boxes a day."
To their astonishment, Northern doctors have lately discovered that eating laundry starch is all the rage among Negro women—especially pregnant women—in many Northern-city slums. At D.C. General Hospital, Chief Obstetrician Dr. Earnest Lowe estimates that up to one-fourth of his patients are starch addicts. At Los Angeles County Hospital, three or four patients a week are diagnosed as having anemia apparently caused by starch binges.
Magnesia & Matzo. According to the few doctors who have studied the subject, the craving for laundry starch is an offshoot of the clay-eating habit still prevalent among some Southern Negroes. Those who migrate North sometimes receive packages of clay (known as "Mississippi Mud" in Los Angeles) mailed by friends back home, but most switch to laundry starch, which is easier to obtain and apparently satisfies the same hunger.
Across the country, the preferred brand is Argo Gloss Starch, available in either the economy-size blue box at 19¢ or the handy red box at 11¢. Both contain chewy lumps that taste, according to one gourmet, like "a cross between milk of magnesia and matzo. The texture is that of an after-dinner mint." Like peanuts, one handful leads to another. "After a box of it," said one woman, "my throat gets kind of sticky, so I go and get a big glass of ice water. Then I get a powerful desire for more." Some enthusiasts spice laundry starch with salt and pepper; others munch it with ice chips. A few housewives wash it down with Coke.
Inexpensive Psychiatry. Argo representatives say that their laundry product contains nothing but cornstarch, a common thickener for soups and desserts. (They also say the starch-eating habit is "rare.") According to medical opinion, eating large amounts of laundry starch often brings on anemia by blocking the body's absorption of iron. Some doctors state that overeating laundry starch may also cause a deficiency of folic acid, which in pregnant women may lead to premature births or bleeding near delivery time.
Whether starch gobbling results from a physical need or a cultural habit is a minor medical mystery. According to Manhattan Internist Harry Roselle, who sees many cases at St. Luke's Hospital, Negro women nibble starch in times of stress as a form of "inexpensive psychiatry." Many Negroes believe that starch prevents nausea during pregnancy. Indeed, some doctors agree that starch probably does soothe "morning sickness," though probably only for psychological reasons. Unfortunately, the other effects are all bad. (source: Time Magazine, 28 July 1967)