Food and Culture

Food is defined as a substance consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate and fat taken into the body to sustain growth, repair and vital processes and to furnish energy. Culture is the total range of activities, ideas, beliefs, values, knowledge, shared traditions which characterize social groups.

Food habits refer to the way humans use food, including everything from how it is selected, obtained and distributed to who prepares it, serves and eats it. Humans are omnivorous, meaning they can consume and digest a wide selection of plants and animals. This makes humans adaptable to many environments although no single food group provides the essential ingredients necessary for survival.

Different groups have a variety of food habits. It can be argued that food potentially can build, define or separate communities. Humans have contradictory psychological impulses regarding diet. First, humans have a desire to try new foods and secondly, they often have a preference for familiar foods. Within a culture, food habits develop to provide a food framework and rules for people to refer to. This in turn reduces the anxiety of trying new foods.

Food in relation to status varies between different cultures and the formation of rank orders. Elaborate consumptions can bring a higher level of status. For example, societies such as the Massa of Cameroon feed over 13,000 kilocalories a day to young men over a period of two months to prestigiously fatten them in ‘guru walla' consumption sessions. In contrast, monks or Western fashion models often starve themselves to achieve status. This reflects the correlation between what people eat, how others perceive them and how they characterize themselves.

In terms of existential, cultural, social and economics, food can divide and separate cultures. Wealth and power within a society shows hierarchical inequalities in accordance to distribution and access. Greek myth illustrates this point: there is food for gods, food for me, and food for animals. Food might be expected to be an index of relative power and status within the family environment, between male and female, parents and children, young and old. Within the social and economic factors, a distinction can be made between rich and poor. Contrasting to this, food binds together cultures, families, classes, religions and citizenships.

Research shows that judgments of people can be based on their diets. Within Western cultures, people perceive those who eat ‘good food' as fitter and more active, likeable, practical, methodical, quiet and analytical. This contrasts with people with identical physical characteristics and exercise habits who consume ‘bad foods'. It has been suggested that several factors are at play with the morality-food effect, including the concept of incorporation and ethic of self-discipline.

The choice of food consumed can reflect a person or cultures self-identity. For many people, consumption is physiological but associative too. People directly interpret the physical properties of a food through incorporation. For example, some Asian Indians eat walnuts to improve their brain and weight lifters eat raw meat. People may also incorporate the character of food, such as the Native Americans who believe because milk is food for infants it will weaken adults.

Food plays a central part both economically and politically within societies, reflecting conditions for the production and distribution of food. The production of food in certain societies depends on the physical environment, the state of agricultural technology, ownership and access to land and its resources distributed among the population. Distribution of food depends on market mechanisms and institutions circulate food between areas. Political factors include the control over distribution resources to areas which need food.

Acculturation occurs when people move to a different culture with different norms, adapting to the prevailing culture. A change in attitudes, beliefs and behaviors start to present appear, which may reach to group level changes that may be physical, economic, social or political in nature. It is seen that changes in food habits are one of the last changes through acculturation. Research shows that adoption of new food habits is independent of traditional food habits. Variables in this change include access, cost and convenience to native produce, which may slow or speed up food acculturation.

Cultural variance is apparent in differing food functions, reflecting the particular culture's priorities. Priorities include nutrition, meanings of foods, superfoods, prestige foods such as protein items or expensive products and body images foods that claim to enhance health and beauty. Other considerations which vary between cultures include flavors and spices, and meal patterns and cycles.

Food and Culture: Selected full-text books and articles

Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture By E. N. Anderson New York University Press, 2014 (2nd edition)
Culture of the Fork: A Brief History of Food in Europe By Giovanni Rebora; Albert Sonnenfeld Columbia University Press, 2001
Educated Tastes: Food, Drink, and Connoisseur Culture By Jeremy Strong University of Nebraska Press, 2011
Food: The Key Concepts By Warren Belasco Berg, 2008
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Identity: Are We What We Eat?" Chap. 3 "The Drama of Food: Divided Identities"
Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History By Alberto Capatti; Massimo Montanari; A. N. O'Healy Columbia University Press, 2003
Food Culture in Japan By Michael Ashkenazi; Jeanne Jacob Greenwood Press, 2003
Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity By Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra; Russ Davidson University of North Carolina Press, 2013
A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food By Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt University of Georgia Press, 2011
Fed Up: Women and Food in America By Catherine Manton Bergin & Garvey, 1999
Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power By Psyche A. Williams Forson University of North Carolina Press, 2006
Indian Perspectives on Food and Culture By Waheneka, Marjorie Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 106, No. 3, Fall 2005
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Food and Society in Classical Antiquity By Peter Garnsey Cambridge University Press, 1999
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