Food cults and customs

Food beliefs and taboos have played a much larger part in the evolution of man’s food habits than nutritional considerations. Although the traditional diet had to be of sound composition for the tribe to survive, some prejudices or religious beliefs have little basis in fact or logic whilst others can be verified scientifically. Whether right or wrong, this does not undermine the social value and importance of these principles. One of the difficulties of improving nutrition in malnourished populations, is not only of providing the right food at the right place, time and cost, but also of supplying it in a form which is appropriate to the customs and beliefs of the people concerned. Many well planned attempts to introduce new foods have failed because palatability, acceptability and social factors have been ignored.

Sacred cows

Some African people have very deeprooted beliefs about milk, which is only acceptable if it has been produced by the family’s own cow. Milk from a friend’s cow cannot be drunk. Women, especially nursing or expectant mothers, could bring harm to the animal if they drank its milk. For these reasons milk is not always an acceptable food for relieving malnutrition despite its nutrient content.

The ancient races had a much greater respect for other forms of life and ecological harmony than we do today. They believed that all living creatures had a spirit which had to be appeased before the organism could be killed. The Hindu’s reverence for the cow dates back to 250 BC when King Asoka decreed that living things should not be injured. Some races believed that the human soul was in danger of escaping when a man opened his mouth to eat, so they preferred to eat in privacy with their faces veiled. When a man is eating he is in a vulnerable state mentally and physically. Food can be a medium for casting spells as with the witches’ cauldron or for conveying poison. Eating customs which leave the sword hand free for rapid defence have also been practiced.

Man, animals and superstition

The Bible set a relatively new precedent for man’s attitude to his environment which is fundamental to Western thinking. It tells us that man should exercise dominion over every living thing that moves on the earth and this forms a deeprooted approach to Christian and Western thinking. It helps to explain why we often fail to acknowledge our role in the biological system which supports us. Moses condemned the use of animals which do not chew the cud and have a divided hoof, certain birds, fish without fins and scales, and certain insects. The rationale of these laws is not understood. Pigs have been described as scavenging, dirty animals which harbour disease, but the Chinese have relished pork for many centuries. The aversion to horse meat in Christendom dates back to Pope Gregory III who ordered Boniface to dissuade his converts from eating horse meat to distinguish themselves from pagans.

In 1493 Paracelsus suggested that “things had the property and character of their appearance.” This gave rise to many ideas about diseases being cured by foods which resemble the diseased part of the body. For example beetroots to cure anaemia, celandines to cure jaundice, walnuts being good for the brain and red wine as a blood tonic. Mandrake, a root vegetable in the potato family, has been associated with sexual potency owing to the shape of its root. This is mentioned in the Bible and by Shakespeare. The plant does contain pharmacologically active substances which could calm the nerves of a timid lover. Primitive peoples have been known to eat strong, fearsome animals; lions, tigers, bulls, in order to make the men strong, whereas eating of poultry or tortoises was thought to make people slow. Certain Indians used to eat dog meat to make themselves loyal and brave and some Japanese would not eat otter in case it made them forgetful.

Superstitions about the potato causing leprosy and typhoid prevented full acceptance of it for several centuries. As long ago as 1839 Graham was extolling the virtues of wholemeal flour, especially when baked into bread by a loving mother. Hindus believe that food cooked with love tastes better than food which is not.

The Victorian fanaticism for chewing food was started by Gladstone who deduced that man’s thirtytwo teeth ought to be employed for chewing food at least thirtytwo times. This idea was extolled by Horace Fletcher who lost five stones in weight by masticating his food to obsessional limits and started a craze which lasted for several decades in the West.