Sociological/anthropological interest in food should not surprise us. This is because, wherever human beings are, what they do, think, perceive and eat or abstain from, are all of interest to the sociologist/anthropologist.
In all our lectures, we have been at pains to emphasize the centrality of culture in human behaviours. As to be expected therefore, what we eat and drink or consider eatable, drinkable or avoidable are all heavily influenced by culture and the physical environment.
Students of food need not be reminded of the major roles diet plays in disease aetiology.
In the realm dietetics, food is any solid or liquid substance which when ingested provides the body with heat and energy, builds and repairs worn-out tissues and helps with the control and regulation of metabolism.
Specific nutrient deficiencies or surpluses can result in discrete syndromes (e.g. goitre).
Similarly, we appreciate the role of diet in the incidence and prevalence of the silent killers – cancers, hypertension, gout, obesity, stroke and other cardiovascular conditions.
Thus, as we often say, You are what you eat.
However, the range of possible diets that provides the nutrients we need to survive and be healthy is wide.
Because we live in diverse environments that are conducive to producing certain foods and not others there is a variation in our dietary habits.
And the variation is reinforced by culture.
For instance, the diet of the Inuit (Artic people) is composed mainly of fatty meat because there is scarcity of plant food.
In the tropics we have large plant-based diets because of the vegetation. Interestingly, fruits play minor role in our diet.
American staple diets are often composed of refined grains, beef, chicken and diary products. Fruits and vegetable play minor role in their diet.
FOOD AND CULTURES
While the environment is very influential in what we eat, it is important to recognize the role of culture also. That is to say, it is not everything produced by the environment that we eat. And sometimes we cherish what the environment does not produce.
For instance, our environment produces a great deal of lizards and cockroaches, but we do not eat them. Our environment does not produce potato but we love potato chips.
Cultural variability is at play here.
Anthropologically, food is more than a source of nutrition. It is multivocal because it is used to express a number of situations.
Food is embedded in religion, economics and social aspects of everyday life. It also carries with it a range of symbolic meanings, expressions and relationship- creation among human beings, between human beings and their deities and between human beings and their environment.
In Luke 15: 11-32 we are told the parable of the prodigal son who compelled his father to give him his share of his father’s property and subsequently went away and squandered everything. When he started suffering, he decided to go home and plead with the father for forgiveness.
When the father saw him, he told his servants: Bring quickly the best robe and put it on him….. And bring the fattest calf and kill it and make merry for my son died and now he is alive again.
When the elder brother returned home and heard what has happened he became angry and said to the father: For these many years I have served you and never disobeyed you, yet you never gave me a kid that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fattest calf…..
For our purpose the message here is clear: food speaks to occasions and can be used to express people’s feelings. The Bible makes several references to food.
Cultures vary significantly in beliefs and practices relating to food. In other words, what substances should we regard as food?
Food eaten in one community may be rigorously forbidden in another.
Why should Europeans and Americans who eat beef (cows) worry when this is mixed with horse meat as happened in Feb. 2013. Are horses and cows not herbivorous and ungulates? What is the fuss about? Culture is at play.
Also, there are cultural variations as to how food is cultivated, harvested, stored, served and eaten.
Each culture usually has a set of implicit rules which determines who prepares and serves the food, on what occasion, the mode it is eaten, who eats what portion of the meal, etc.
All of these stages in food preparation and consumption are closely patterned by culture and are placed in our psyche as the accepted way of life.
Because of the centrality of food in human life, especially in social relationships, dietary beliefs and practices are very difficult to change, even if they interfere with health and nutrition.
Banku, hot pepper and sardine/smoked tilapia may not be considered a balanced diet but people will not give it up no matter the nutritional consequences.
Consequently, before these dietary habits can be significantly modified or changed, it is important to understand the way each culture views its food and the way it classifies foods.
In general, 5 types of food classificatory systems can be identified. Many combinations of this categorization may exist in the same society. The categories are as follows:
Food versus non-food
Sacred vrs profane foods
Parallel foods (‘warm’ vrs ‘cold’ foods
Food as medicine and medicine as food
FOOD VRS NONFOOD
Each culture defines which products/substances are edible and which are not (Experiences from Malawi and Sierra Leone). However, under conditions of famine, economic deprivation, spirituality and travel, the definition tends to be flexible; in other cases, the definition remains rigid in spite of these conditions.
In addition, among the substances defined as food, there is a distinction between those evaluated as nutritious and are eaten during meals and those eaten between meals as snacks. The latter are often regarded as no foods.
Whatever the origin of these definitions, classifying a substance as non-food on cultural grounds may leave out useful nutrients from the diet and this seems to be a universal phenomenon.
Indeed, no human group even under conditions of extreme starvation utilizes all available nutritional substances as food. Lizards are food but are not food even under conditions of severe food shortage.
In some Polynesian societies, it was customary for a new chief to eat the heart of his dead predecessor in the belief that the virtues of the dead chief would fill the new one.
Although the general belief is that cannibalism has vanished in many parts of the world, something happened in Thailand a few years ago which debunked this belief.
SACRED VRS PROFANE
In sociology, we contrast sacred with profane objects in reference to objects society holds dear and treat them with reverence while profane goods are the opposite.
For instance, for the Christians, eating holy communion and drinking communion wine at church are regarded as spiritual cannibalism for which believers must perform some rituals before partaking of this meal.
However, buying the host and communion wine from the shop and consuming them at home do not make them sanctified objects – they are not sacred food; they are profane foods.
Among the Kassena and Nankana of Upper East Region, at funerals some normally served foods take on different garments. For instance, when cooked bambara beans and koose are served, no salt and pepper or any spice for that matter are added. The message is that the dead no longer have taste.
Similarly, the Ewe in southern Ghana and in Togo normally eat akple. However, in festivities that have high ritual content, salted akple (dzekple) is served as a form of communion with the deities and ancestors.
Sacred food are therefore those validated by religion while those expressly forbidden by religion are termed ‘profane.’ This latter group is the subject of strict taboos which forbid not only eating it but also having physical contact with it because it is regarded a pollutant and dangerous to health.
Religious groups that have strong food taboos tend also to have strict observances and rituals which separate the sacred from the profane aspects of daily life such as regular prayers, ritual bathing and other purificatory rites.
Strict taboos against certain types of food are characteristic of a number of religious faiths.
Hindu persuaders do not kill or eat any animal, especially cow. The milk and its by products may be eaten since they do not involve killing the animal. Eggs and fish are infrequently eaten.
The SDAs do not eat fish that has no scales (eg salmon)
Muslims do not eat pork or pig products. The only meat permitted is that ritually slaughtered (halal).
The taboos of the Judaic religion are like those of the Muslims. Meat and milk dishes are never mixed within the same meal.
Rastafarians are essentially vegetarians and some follow the dietary restrictions of Judaism. Alcohol is strictly forbidden while ganga is their holy weed.
Among the Ga, ‘kpokpoi’ is sacred food; ‘eto’ is also sacred among the Akan while ‘dzekple’ is for Ewe dieties.
In many rural areas and some poor urban communities, malnutrition is endemic and seasonal. This is related to periods of the year when food is in short supply or when both rural and urban poverty makes it difficult for families to obtain adequate food supply. More often than not cultural and nutritional taboos in some communities forbid (pregnant) women or children from eating certain food items such as fish, poultry, egg, etc and this may exacerbate nutritional deficiency problems.
Eg among the Akwapim, an expectant mother must not buy tomatoes, pepper, okra or garden eggs from the market. If she did, it is believed that her child will have some kind of rashes and disabilities.
It is also a taboo for a pregnant women to eat pawpaw, ripe plantain and groundnuts. It is a taboo for members of the Nketia clan to eat kenkey prepared on a Tuesday; the Otebraa clan members must not eat snail and antelope; the Aduana clan forbids eating fowl with white feathers (Darko M. O. 1992 Taboos on Women. Dept of Sociology).
The Krobo forbid widows from eating chicken and beans (D. K. Fiawoo et al. 1978 Funeral Customs in Ghana. Dept of Sociology)
The Kasena and Nankana forbid pregnant women from eating while on foot paths lest they give birth to spirit children (chichuru/sinsirigo).
In many cultures, parallel foods are created in response to health needs. Such foods are defined as ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ and are used as such. The definition of hot or cold does not necessarily refer to the objective quality of the substance to its cultural classification.
Thus, in our context, pepper is ‘hot’ while tomato is ‘cold’. Thus, when we have ‘hot’ pepper, we reduce its intensity with tomato which is culturally ‘cold’.
In some American Indian tribes, chicken is cold while beans in hot. Consequently, the use of these reflects people’s understanding of health and illness. Pregnant women are not expected to eat beans because pregnancy is hot while chicken is cold.
Often in the morning we want something warm because after several hours of sleep, our blood also went to ‘sleep’ and therefore must be awakened with something warm.
FOOD AS MEDICINE; MEDICINE AS FOOD
In all cultures, certain foods are also regarded as medicines and therefore they are eaten to improve health.
For instance in Ghana, a woman who has recently delivered a baby is made groundnut or palm oil soup just so she can regain her health quickly and produce enough breast milk. Such foods are regarded as galactogenic.
Again there is the popular belief that tiger nut and its milk enhance sperm production.
In the field of medicine, there are instances when some medicines are said to be food or food replacement. Vitamin medications and IV fluids are all in this category. They are medicines but at the same time food.
Food is a form of communication. The chief who is given the head of the elephant is being recognized as the head of the community. The man who slaughters his fattest ram for his visitor is according the latter great respect.
The type of foods we eat also speaks volume about who we are. Thus, our class status determines the kinds of food we eat and the food in turn determines our class position. The same thing applies to what we drink.
A few years ago, Prof. Agyeman Badu Akosa, then Director General of the GHS, suggested that Hausa koose and koko is very nutritious and must be patronized by Ghanaians. However, he apparently overlooked the class/cultural connection with this meal. As to be expected, Ghanaians made fun of that suggestion.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE SUGGESTION?
Also whether we drink ‘brukutu,’ ‘akpeteshie, Cognac or Remy Martin, our class position and culture influence this behaviour. But as you are also aware, excessive drinking of these beverages come with their health problems, prominent among which are cirrhosis of the liver, esophageal cancer or Korsakov syndrome.
In conclusion, what we are saying is that food means many things to many people in various cultures. What you consider nutritious food may not be considered as such by other people.
This cultural variability must inform your attitude to patients whose backgrounds are totally different from yours.
Consequently, we say FOOD IS FOOD BUT SOMETIMES NOT FOOD.