Food culture: the anthropology of food and nutrition

Excerpt from an unpublished review paper on Globalisation, Culture and Traditional Food Systems.

Culture, as a concept, cannot easily be defined although it has been described by various Anthropologists over the years. Spencer-Oatey (2012) explained that defining culture tends to be difficult because of the various uses for which the term has been employed. His definition of culture takes into consideration the behavioural patterns of people in a group as shaped by their values, beliefs, orientation and policies, and how this may influence, but not necessarily determine, individual behaviour within the group, as well as their interpretation of the behaviour of people outside the group. Matsumoto and Juang (2012) add that what defines the term “culture” is that it is translated and transferred from one generation to the next. Culture is dynamic and individuals may possess multiple cultures as they move into new cycles such as occupation, religion or geographic regions (Avruch 1998).

It is worth noting that none of these definitions restrict the definition of culture to a set pre-modern ideologies and patterns of behaviour exhibited by a group of people who are separated from a wider group, but shows that culture goes beyond the physical location of people. Culture is a psychological process which is learnt, experienced and sometimes inherited, and it can be manifested in dressing, language, ideologies, rituals and food preferences (Hofstede, 1994; Matsumoto and Juang, 2012).

Food anthropology studies the links between food and other social aspects of life while nutrition anthropology studies the food practices of a group and its implication on their overall health and well-being (Dirks and Hunter, 2013).

Food has been described by some Anthropologists as a social symbol through which people identify and express themselves and is in fact an important pillar of culture because it is indicative of how the way of life of a group of people can be structured by what they eat and how what they eat defines who they are (Rozin, 2005; Miller, 2009). The cultural implications in nutrition are complex and very significant in evolving strategies to promote food and nutrition security (El-Mahi, 2013).

Food is important for the sustenance of human life and food preferences are influenced by biological and physiological needs, food price and income, gender roles and work patterns, public policy and globalisation-especially through trade (Keats and Wiggins, 2014). The type of food cultivated and consumed as well as the mode by which these foods are prepared by a group can reflect their cultural heritage (Ayemoni, 2011).

In his book – the physiology of taste, published in 1994, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said “…Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are. This statement has been used to describe the ability to infer peoples’ identities by their food choices. Food culture is indicative of the distinctive features and customs of the said group and evolves from past and current events as well as resource availability.

Within the framework of culture lies behaviours, connections and structures which justifies its being qualified as “a culture”.  Food habits, as such, have been used as an important tool in the study of cultures (Tian and Tian, 2011). For instance, the informal gatherings of the Inuit people in Canada provide an opportunity for sharing indigenous traditional food, especially for older members of the community who are unable to hunt (Egeland et al, 2009). This culture is therefore seen as an important means of promoting food security in this community.

Anthropologist have studied food culture from several dimensions, some using cooking techniques to express theories and principles governing culture (Levi-Strauss, 1969) others believe that food culture is dynamic and increasingly influenced by convenience (Belasco, 2008), social status (Ehrlich, 2000 and Smith, 2006), economic growth (Nierenberg, 2006) and prosperity. Mintz (2002) sums it up by stating that food systems have been utilised to express a wide range of actions and operations within the framework of a society. Fox (2013) being more eccentric in his approach expressed that taste tends to play a more significant role than nutrition does in peoples’ food choice. He compares food to fashion and expresses that people tend to follow the prevailing dietary trend under the guise of healthy eating all in the effort to “feel among”.

In addition, Socio‐cultural changes, which also influence food consumption, determine consumers’ inclination to certain food choices. These changes include the substitution of “home-cooked meals” with “supermarket ready meals” and the option of all year round consumption of most food (Meulenberg and Viaene, 1998). Also, the “global village” the world has become has promoted the dominance of big global brands which create a brand-imposed food culture especially in urban areas, where people may buy food, not necessarily for quality but mostly because it is a foreign or famous “brand name” (Li, 2007).

Fox (2013) is also of the opinion that, while people make great effort to obtain their preferred food, they taboo some of what is readily available. For instance, Europeans do not eat dogs and horses, Muslims and Jews do not eat pork, and Hindus taboo the eating of beef. This reveals that a characteristic aspect of a food culture is that it promotes patterns and habits of food consumption which invariably influences consumers’ decision regarding food consumption (Mills, 2000; Tian and Tian, 2011; Wood and Muñoz, 2006).


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