Food and society

Disgusting? It's a question of culture

Disgust is an emotion defined by physiological and cognitive factors but also by relational, social and cultural aspects. This is why our food choices are to a large extent determined by our upbringing and the context in which we live.

Hunger is a primary need which regularly claims our attention, distracting us from other thoughts. Once the matter of survival has been resolved, however, the things we consider food become a complex equation in which environmental, social, ethical and religious considerations are intertwined with everyday habits and their manifestations. Since ancient times, in fact, eating has been a question not only of feeding the body but also the spirit: examples are banquets held on feast days or sweets offered to console an afflicted soul.

A question of feelings
It is scientifically acknowledged that human behaviour concerning food is both associated with emotions and an influence upon them. It's a two-way relationship, not always conscious, in which food affects feelings and vice versa: on the one hand, we can elicit joy from the pleasure of eating something sweet, on the other, emotions impact on our way of eating, for example we may choose an ice cream or some chocolate because we’re feeling sad.
This latter category includes our relationship with disgust, an emotion usually conceptualised as a "defence mechanism", evolved to protect us against potentially harmful foods and other pathogens, which lies at the root of our avoidance of certain foods.
For humans, in fact, being omnivorous is both an advantage and a challenge. The flexibility we gain from our lack of a specialised diet - unlike many animal species - has allowed humans to colonise every habitat on earth, adapting to different types of diet. But at the same time, we have to spend time and energy finding out what we can eat. Fortunately, tradition and culture preserve the knowledge and experience accumulated by countless "tasters" before us.
Culture codifies the rules of sensible eating in a complex series of taboos, rituals, recipes and traditions. All this means that humans do not have to face each time what Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at Pennsylvania University, has defined as "the omnivore's dilemma".

Prohibitions and taboos
In general, however, reactions of disgust are more likely to be linked to animal-based foods than plant-based ones. Thus it is no surprise that, from a historical point of view, it is the former which are subject to more prohibitions and taboos, like, for example, pork for Muslims, shellfish for Jews or beef for Hindus. Disgust, in fact, is a highly cultural concept. Certain organic products (such as rotting meat) are disgusting by nature, but many societies express somewhat idiosyncratic forms of disgust, which often have no basis beyond the development of rules and habits in their culture.
In western societies, foods such as snails, frogs and offal may be exalted or considered repellent, depending on geographical region and social group. This means that what we eat - or refuse to eat - speaks of far more than simple food preferences. Every culture, in its own way, tends to divide what can be eaten from what cannot be eaten, and this division is the result of numerous symbolic elements which stem from the physical and guide a particular perception of the social, and vice versa.

Elena Cadel (BCFN Alumni Association)


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