Eating habits are also a cultural issue

Eating habits are also a cultural issue

June 25, 2021

Eating habits are also a cultural issue

What you choose to put on your plate is not only the result of biological mechanisms such as hunger or taste: the everyday social and cultural context in which you live also counts.

In January 2021, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that the Tenebrio molitor larva or “mealworm”, either dried as a snack or as a powder, was safe to eat. A few months later (May 2021), Europe gave the green light for this “novel food” to be marketed, sparking many negative reactions among people who consider insects to be foreign to European food culture and cannot even imagine consuming products that contain insect meal or even insects as a snack.

Yet insects have always been part of the daily diet of thousands of ethnic groups around the world. What is the reason for such different reactions to the same food? It’s all about culture, say the experts.

It doesn’t just apply to insects

Insects are just one example of how food choices are linked to social, psychological and cultural factors, as well as to more classic physiological and biological factors. Remember that meat, which is the basis of many Western diets, is only rarely eaten (if not completely avoided) in several Asian countries. 

EUFIC's experts point out  that food choices are the complex result of numerous factors, first of all hunger, of course, but also other less obvious ones that are economic (cost of food, income), practical (availability of food, time to prepare it) and social (culture, people with whom meals are eaten). Psychological influences such as mood or stress, and attitudes and personal knowledge about food also play a role. 

And there are plenty of examples. A French study demonstrated that people who are more attentive to environmental issues are more likely to choose to eat organic products

A Norwegian study showed instead that food choices also vary according to social class: more varied and “healthy” tastes among the well-to-do classes, more repetitive and “unhealthy” ones among the less well-off. 

A sustainable and healthy diet, in cultural terms as well

Given all these provisos, is it actually possible to define a healthy and sustainable diet that is good for everyone and that also takes into account the social and cultural nuances that determine food choices? 

The most obvious answer is generally positive, but negative if you go into the detail. In other words, the basic principles of a diet that is good for human health and the environment remain the same all over the world and for all cultures (purely plant-based foods, little waste and no excess calories, fats or refined sugars), but you can’t “mix apples and oranges” and standardize the indications by neglecting the habits and typical foods of individual cultures. 

The BCFN Foundation’s experts are well aware of this and in their publication A One Health Approach to Food they have presented the new food and environment double pyramid, taking into account the data emerging from scientific research, but have also gone further, precisely to take into account the cultural differences that guide food-related choices. 

The result is 7 different cultural pyramids, each of which includes foods that make them “culturally sustainable” for the people living in a specific geographical area (Africa, Western Asia, Eastern Asia, Latin America, the Mediterranean, Nordic countries and Canada, United States). 

“While some common principles can identified, any attempt to adopt a healthy and sustainable diet must take cultural differences into account. Context-specific messages should be developed taking into account local culture, traditions, taste and norms” the report's authors write. “In short, the message of the Cultural Double Pyramids is that healthy and sustainable food choices can be practiced everywhere, respecting local culinary traditions and individual preference, and stimulate variety and diversity around the world,” they conclude.

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