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Culture & Food: Food Taboos

Thanksgiving cornucopia
Since this week is Thanksgiving, I’d like to talk a little about culture and food, and specifically something called food taboos.
There is a ton of edible material on this planet, and each culture decides which things are considered “food” and which things aren’t. For example, there are several hundreds of edible things in the Paraguayan jungle, but the Ache people who live there usually eat only 17 different foods. The same is true for all other cultures—no one eats the full spectrum of food available in the environment.
culture and food taboos. Image of a table filled with different foods for Thanksgiving

Food Taboos

The things people in a given culture will not eat are called food taboos. For example, people in the United States usually don’t eat insects, but people in many other cultures do. And, some cultures eat rats, but people in the United States do not. So insects and rats are food taboos for the USA, but not for other cultures.
Some food taboos are related to religion—for example, Jews and Muslims do not eat pork. Other taboos are related to stage in life. For example, in the Upper Manya Krobo district of Ghana, women are prohibited from eating snails, rats, hot foods, and animal lungs while they are pregnant. And, among a tribe in Papua New Guinea, a man cannot eat fresh meat, only smoked meat, once he is married. And food taboos can be related to illness. For example, the Orang Asli people of West Malaysia are prescribed food taboos by a medicine man when they are sick.
So, why are there food taboos in essentially all societies? Well, each culture has its own reasons why certain foods should not be eaten. So far there is no one theory that explains all food taboos. But, one reason may be that food taboos are part of a group’s culture, and create a sense of belonging. They also help distinguish the group from others. So food taboos may be a factor in group cohesion.
culture and food taboos. Image of a cooked turkey next to a baked pie.

Learn More

What about you? What edible material do YOU consider to be “food?” And what edible material do you NOT consider “food?” If you’d like to read more about food taboos, here are links to four open-access journal articles:
Happy Thanksgiving to all those who celebrate it! Thanks for reading!