Food taboos: Religious and cultural food laws

Excerpt from an unpublished review paper on Globalisation, Culture and Traditional Food Systems.

The significance of food to humans is not restricted to nutrition and biological functions (El-Mahi, 2013) but is also a means of expression in many cultures and religions. For instance, when a Muslim faithful asked Prophet Muhammad “What is faith?” he responded: “to offer food and give the greeting of peace” (Feeley-Harnik, 1995).  

The religious undertone of most taboos makes them hard to eliminate as they have become deeply etched in the psychology of followers and even more so when there is an overlap with their indigenous culture as is seen in many communities (El-Mahi, 2013). Meyer-Rochow (2009) noted that when a group accepts a food taboo as part of its culture; it gives them an identity and uniqueness which facilitates cohesion and also brings about a sense of belonging and confidence. It can therefore be inferred that food taboos are reinforced by cultural and religious ideologies which have transformed to longstanding traditions as they are transferred from one generation to the next.

In Islam, the Hadith[1] states that “beasts with canine teeth and birds of prey with claws” are forbidden for consumption. These include dogs, cats, mules, horses, swine, jackals, lions, elephants, wasps, insects, ravens, hyenas and foxes. In addition, chapter (surra) five, verse three of the Qur’an[2] further states the type of animals and mode of death that renders them unsuitable for human consumption (Stone, 1998):

“Forbidden unto you (for food) are carrion and blood and swine-flesh, and that which hath been dedicated unto any other than Allah, and the strangled, and the dead through beating, and the dead through falling from a height, and that which hath been killed by (the goring of) horns, and the devoured of wild beasts, saving that which ye make lawful (by the deathstroke), and that which hath been immolated unto idols…Whoso is forced by hunger, not by will, to sin: (for him) lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful”

Judaism also forbids the consumption of certain aimals (Stone, 1998). As was stated in Leviticus on the consumption of swine and certain fish species;

 “These you may eat of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat.  But anything in the seas or the rivers that has not fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is an abomination to you. They shall remain an abomination to you; of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall have in abomination. Everything in the waters that has not fins and scales is an abomination to you (11: 9-12)”

Jewish dietary laws show how food taboos with religious origins bring about group-cohesion.  In fulfilling spiritual obligations, the first nine days of the month of ‘Av’ Jews abstain from meat as a symbol of mourning, on the day of Passover (Pessah) they consume unleavened bread, and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is marked by abstinence from food and drink for 24 hours (Meyer-Rochow 2009).

Hindu food taboos reflect empathy for animals that are to be killed for the selfish purpose of human consumption. They believe in re-incarnation and do not differentiate between the human and animal soul. Brahmins[3] on the other hand abstain from meat, fish and eggs, neither do they cook with onions nor garlic because they are perceived to heighten passions like sex drive and anger. Similarly some shamans of the Amazonian rainforest also guide their communities hunting practices and food consumption through their spiritual interpretations of their environment (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1990).

Some anthropologist consider food taboos as going beyond the fulfilment of spiritual obligations (Meyer-Rochow 2009) and relate it to management systems adopted by cultural groups to protect resources (Begossi, 1992), ration and distribute resources (Harris, 1985; Meyer-Rochow 2009; Begossi, 1992), monopolise resources (Harris, 1985), express empathy (Bendann, 1930), and protect human health (Colding, 1997).

For instance, the Orang Asli aboriginal tribe of West Malaysia believe that all animals are spiritual beings, they feed children less than four years of age with animals like fish, frog, toads and small birds (these are considered small animals) while children up to 20 years of age eat small monkeys, bat species, cats, anteaters, deer, turtle, larger birds, and even the Malayan bear because they believe the child’s spirit is strong enough to compete with the spirit of these animals. However, pregnant women can only eat small animals (toads, rats, small birds and fish) perceived to possess weak spirit which must be caught by her husband or close relative (Meyer-Rochow 2009). This provides a kind of feeding strata and minimises competition within the community since each group is confined to set of species based on ‘spiritual principles’.

In the mid-Western parts of Nigeria, it was once believed that feeding children meat and eggs made them prone to stealing, and only elders could eat the thigh and gizzard of ducks and chicken. Coconut milk was believed to make children unintelligent and animal liver was said to cause lung problem in children. Pregnant women in Ishan (Nigeria) abstain from consuming snails because it was believed that children will possess bad habits after birth (Ogbeide, 1974).

Endocannibalism[4], practiced by women from the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea as a funeral right, entails the eating of the brain of the deceased. This was also considered a primary source of protein for women while men got their protein from hunting (Lindenbaum, 2008). Among the Birom people of plateau state, Nigeria eating dog meat is a food culture which is still practiced till date as well as in some parts of Vietnam. However, in Europe as a whole, dogs have also received “taboo status” (Meyer-Rochow, 2009) because they are kept as pets.


Begossi A. (1992) Food taboos at Buzios Island (Brazil): Their significance and relation to folk medicine. Journal of Ethnobiology. 12(1):117–139

Bendann, E. (1930) Death customs: an analytical study of burial rites. Dowsons

Colding, J. and Folke, C. (1997) The relations among threatened species, their protection, and taboos. Ecology and Society [online]. 1 Available from:  [Date Assessed: 16.01.15]

El-Mahi, T. (2013) Food Customs and Cultural Taboos. Sudanese Journal of Paediatrics. 13(1): 90-95

Feeley-Harnik, G. (1995) Religion and Food: An Anthropological Perspective. Journal of the American Academy. 63(3)565-582

Harris, M. (1985) Good to eat – Riddles of food and culture. In Meyer-Rochow, V. B. (2009). Food taboos: their origins and purposes. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 5:18.

Liberski, P. P. (2013) Kuru: A Journey Back in Time from Papua New Guinea to the Neanderthals’ Extinction. Pathogens. 2: 472–505

Lindenbaum, S. (2008) Understanding kuru: the contribution of anthropology and medicine. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 363(1510):3715-3720.

Meyer-Rochow, V. B. (2009). Food taboos: their origins and purposes. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 5:18.

Ogbeide, O. (1974) Nutritional hazards of food taboos and preferences in Mid-West Nigeria. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 27:213–216

Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. (1990) Rainforest Shamans: Essays on the Tukano Indians of the Northwest. Themis Books

Stone, L. (1998) A Contextual Introduction to Islamic Food Restrictions [Online]. Harvard University. Available from: [Date assessed: 16.01.15]


[1] A collection of stories of the life of the Prophet (Stone,1998)

[2] The Qur’an is the supreme authority of Islam provides guidelines on what is legal (halal) and forbidden (haram) (Stone, 1998)

[3] In the Vedic Hindu Society there is a subdivision into 4 castes on the basis of labour: Brahmin (priestly), Kshatriya (defence), Vaisya (agriculture and business), and Shudra (menial labour) (Meyer-Rochow, 2009)

[4] Endocannibalism – Mourning ritual which entails eating dead relatives, in contrast to exocannibalism which entails eating enemies (Liberski, 2013).

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