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PERSPECTIVES ON DIET
Ellen Messer
Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California 94305;
Department of Nutrition and Food Science, Massachusetts Insti tute of Technology,
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139

INTRODUCTION
Whether viewed frQm archaeQlQgical-histQrical, sQciQcultural, Qr biQmedical
perspectives,fQQd is a basic CQncern for all human societies. Reflecting that
basic concern, anthropologists have long been interested in human diets,and
specifically in (a) the ecological and market availabilities of foods; (b) the
sociocultural classifications of foods as "edible" or "inedible," rankings as
"preferred" or "less preferred" foods,and rules for distribution; and (c) the
nutritional and medical consequences of particular cultural consumption pat
terns, including patterns o.f fo.o.d sharing. The o.ld proverbs, 'Tell me what yo.U
eat and I'll tell Yo.U who. yo.U are" (from the French),and "Yo.U are what yo.U eat"
(from the German), PQint also. to. mQre general anthroPQIo.gical issues such as
the relatio.nships o.f human Po.PulatiQns or so.cial groups to. their environment,
the symbo.lic co.nstruction o.f cultures, and the so.cial relatio.ns and so.cial
structures o.f so.cieties. Whether explicated from cultural materialist (147, 281),
ideo.Io.gical-structural (289), Qr SQme cQmbinatio.n Qf bio.Io.gical and
sQcio.cultural perspectives (104), the determinants and results o.f dietary co.n
structio.ns have continued to engage anthropologists of all subdisciplines.
After summarizing past through current reviews and bibliographic sources,
this essay will selectively review anthroPQlQgical studies Qn the sQciQcultural
and biological determinants and co.nsequences Qf human diet,first histQrically
and then by topic. The review will be organized to show ho.W the various
dimensions o.f food systems (material, sociocultural, nutritional-medical) are
interrelated and how certain problems they raise are shared. These include
theoretical and methodological issues of intrapopulation (intracultural) varia205

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MESSER

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tion and biological and cultural factors in the "evolution" of diet. Given the
quantity of literature , this author will leave for other reviewers certain major
topics such as "diet and human evolution" (72) , an update on the comparative
risc and developments of agriculture and herding ( 1 1 5 , 1 46), alcohol (2 1 5a,
3 1 8a) and other quasi-food substances (35) , "time allocation in relation to
nutrient intake" (23 1 a), determinants of breast feeding vs bottle feeding (25 1 ) ,
and cannibalism (80a, 202a).

OVERVIEW
Anthropological reviews of the "food" aspect of culture have in the past
'
included "diet" as part of the study of the health and environmental conse
quences of ecological adaptations (238, 239) , or from the biocultural perspec
tive on nutrition and adaptation, which examined the "functional" consequ
ences of diet ( 1 44) . A separate review contrasted the development and practical
impact of the "food habits" research of the 1 930s- 1 940s in the United States
with the ecological approaches to food problems of the 1 960s and 1 970s (237) .
More recent reviews (53 , 1 28; 1 63 , especially Chaps. 1 -2; 23 1 , 236, 252a,
333) have examined the intellectual background and methodologies of nutri
tional anthropology-a new subfield that combined the interests of biological ,
ecological , and sociocultural (including food folklorist) anthropologists and
also drew systematically on the concepts and methods of nutritionists and other
behavioral scientists.
Analyses of the sociocultural determinants of food intake (69, 23 1 , 232) , the
household focus in dietary and nutrition research (230) , the historic and
evolutionary relationships between diet and culture for the world (25 , 1 04 , 1 8 1 ,
274 , 290, 3 1 2) and for specific cultures ( 1 5 , 29, 34, 5 5 , 63 , 1 22 , 1 48 , 244),
and culture, nutrition, and health (220, 256) have also been undertaken. They
provide both a historical and practical framework for analyzing how food
systems operate and how they change , particularly under the impacts of new
food production and food processing technologies, and in many instances, a
growing delocalization of food supply and consumption patterns (7 1 , 1 48,
254) . Studies on food systems and their evolution are also compiled in anno
tated bibliographies ( 1 29, 3 3 1 , 332) and collected essays on food habits ( 1 0 ,
38, 42 , 1 06), nutritional anthropology ( 1 1 3 , 1 63), and the relationships be
tween malnutrition, social organization, human behavior, and physical de
velopment ( 1 37 , 1 38) . While many of these authors have focused on the food
habits or nutrition of a group---usuaUy a cultural community-some have
emphasized the need to study intraeultural variation in human food patterns and
nutritional outcomes as a way of more precisely analyzing food preferences,
why and how food habits change, and why there appear to be differences in
nutritional well-being ("successful" versus malnourished individuals) within

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PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

207

populations with ostensibly the "same" nutritional and sociocultural environ


ment (224, 230, 252, 253).
On nutritional questions, communication between anthropologists, nutri
tionists, and other behavioral scientists has been furthered by the publications
of a number of cross-disciplinary journals: Ecology of Food and NutritiQfl,
Food and Nutrition Bulletin (and other publications of the United Nations
University), Food Policy, Nutrition Research, World Review of Nutrition and
Dietetics, Medical Anthropology, Social Science and Medicine, Medical
Anthropology Newsletter (Medical Anthropology Quarterly), The CommuNi
cAtor (Newsletter of the Council on Nutritional Anthropology), Culture and
Agriculture, The Digest (Publication of the University of Pennsylvania Food
Group of the Department of Folklore and Folklife), Food and Foodways,
Appetite, Human Ecology, Ethnobiology, and a gastronomic section in Social
Science Information (see also 161, 180).
Collaborative efforts between anthropologists, psychologists, and biologists
interested in the biological and cultural origins and evolution of diet (16, 303)
also seem to be increasing . Such joint efforts have considered the possible
behavioral consequences of specific nutrient intakes (233), "food as an en
vironmental factor in the genesis of human variability" (321),and conceptual
inquiries on the determinants and coding of food preferences and aversions
within human and nonhuman primate societies ( l 3 1 , 294). Topics include
cultural transmission of information about bitter and potentiall y toxic sub
stances, pharmacological as well as other nutritive factors directing selective
patterns of eating, e.g. plants or plant parts, or consumption of what at first
glance appear to be irritating , unpalatable foods (103, 131, 286, 287). The
types of food consumed, especially whether diets are vegetarian or omnivo
rous, preferential feeding patterns by sex and rank, stability or mobility of
range , the existence of food storage , and cannibalism are additional subjects
under discussion by primatologists and others investigating the evolutionary
relationships between diet, culture, and social organization of early to modern
humans (68,130,149-152,156, 257,309,313). In summary, such studies
point to the need for further cross-disciplinary considerations of the biological
origins and cultural transmission of food habits and the interrelationships of
biological and cultural influences in human consumption patterns.
APPROACHES TO DIET IN THE HISTORY OF
ANTHROPOLOGY
Social Anthropological Studies

Early British social anthropological studies of the economics and social orga
nization of nonindustrialized societies subsisting mainly on local resources
noted how the search for , preparation , and consumption of food provided the

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208

MESSER

primary focus rather than an interval in the day's activities, and how in such
contexts, symbolic and emotional values of foods were often used ritually to
mark social status , intervals in time, and culturally important environmental
resources (22, 1 08; see 23 1 , 237). Subsequent ethnographies emphasized the
centrality of the social cooperation in the food quest and food sharing to the
structure and change of human social organization and culture.
In what are probably still our most complete studies of the interrelationships
between food supplies , social organization, and nutrition , British social anthro
pologists working in pre-World War II colonial Africa found that the study of
food and hunger were basic to their understandings of social relationships,
political life, and changing cultures disrupted by British rule. Richards' (273)
classic study of the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia concluded that the reasons
natives did not work harder (a primary concern for British mining and other
economic interests) was not a question of sloth but of undernutrition . Since men
had been drawn away to labor in the mines , women found it difficult to perform
the heavy clearing tasks traditionally assumed by men , in addition to their own
cultivation and gathering roles . During the period of the year when women
most needed food energy to sustain clearing and planting of fields, food was in
shortest supply. Thus , they were enmeshed in an ongoing cycle of underpro
duction and undernutrition.
As part of her study Richards carefully examined all social relations as they
related to food exchange. She considered the emotional qualities assigned to
different foods-their desirability in terms of taste and digestibility , their
importance in the native ceremonial life, as for instance, the importance of
grains used in beer brewing, and the excitement that accompanied opportunities
to eat meat-as well as people's perceptions of the nutritional qualities and
physiological effects of different staple grains and relishes eaten with them.
(The Bemba seemed to recognize the relationships between low energy intake
and lack of energy to perform work, and consciously conserved energy during
the lean , cold season. They had a concept of the ideal proportion of grain to
relish in the ordinary diet, and some women, when they were too tired to gather
ingredients for relish, might not prepare the grain either, since it was hard to get
the grain down without the lubrication of the relish . ) She also described the
social dimensions of food production, preparation, distribution, and consump
tion , noting how all kinship relations were marked by prescri bed rules for
sharing; and how these obligations would break down in times of dearth, when
people tended to hoard meager supplies. Her reports, collected by selective
observations , interviews , and informant diaries over a rclati vely short period of
time, include general descriptions of gardening, crop successions , and time
allocated to different food production, collecting. and food processing tasks.
Her model for the "food" aspect of culture was also interdisciplinary, as she ,
like other British social anthropologists of this period ( 1 23), employed botan-

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PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

209

ists, nutritionists, and biochemists to aid them in identifying and assessing the
nutritional values of foods. Her work influenced later studies of the changing
interrelationships between social organization of production and distribution of
food, diet, and nutrition (207, 208, 297, 298, 323) even though such food
focused studies did not fit the "mainstream" of British social anthropology
(239 ).
In retrospect, this food ethnography remains a model for nutritional anthro
pologists and others studying the social and nutritional impact of economic
development. A nutritionist designed that specialized dimension of the study.
Meanwhile, Richards' ethnographic component suggests that in lieu of more
complex and statistically rigorous methodologies, systematic, selective
observations of foodrelated activities may yield valuable information on a
variety of topics of current concern: the range of times it takes to carry out
certain tasks, at what points seasonal or daily "bottlenecks" in (women's) work
occur, and the functional consequences of malnutrition, which prevent people
from breaking out of their cycle of impoverishment and underproduction.
Psychological Anthropological Studies
During the corresponding period (1930s-1940s), American social psycholo
gical anthropologists, by contrast, focused on how attitudes toward food
developed in particular cultures and affected later social relationships (between
kin and between the sexes), behavior, and psychosocial development as part of
larger "culture and personality" studies (170). DuBois's (88, 89) classic study
of the Alorese suggested that the child's early experiences of frustration and
neglect when his or her need for food was not met established the basic
insecurity and suspicious distrust that characterized the adult personality,
cultural orientations and social relations. Hunger was seen as a basic motiva
tion for foraging, thieving, learning adult skills such as gardening, and as a
central theme in Alorese mythology. DuBois also argued that social anxiety
about food scarcity was really a social fiction, perpetuated because people felt
efforts to increase their food supply would be subject to natural or cultural
deprivations from rats or theft.
How food anxieties, whether based on real or fictional shortages, could
dominate cultural, social, and psychological functioning provided the focus for
other studies as well. These included the Shacks' investigations of abstemious
eating behaviors but also ritual gorging and personality among the Gurage of
Ethiopia (295, 296), Holmberg's motivational analysis of Siriono behavior
(154), and analyses of gardening beliefs and magical efforts to control appetite
and thereby conserve and extend food supplies, an index of real and symbolic
social power among certain Pacific Island groups (124, 206, 340).
Also having their beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s were United States
studies on food habits. These were initially meant to serve both scholarly and

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210

MESSER

practical ends. In anticipation of wartime food shortages and rationing, anthro


pologists contributed to government-sponsored studies of ethnic food habits,
their nutritional consequences, and how, if necessary, they might be changed
(59-61,67). On the last question, it was argued that anxieties over food and
hunger formed during early feeding experiences determined whether eating
habits later in life were easily amenable to change (222) and whether food was a
chief explanation for illness (328). Ethnic dietary studies undertaken during
this period have provided conceptual and "baseline" data on eating patterns for
subsequent studies of ethnic dietary acculturation (199, 133, 134, 250).
Social psychological (anthropological) analyses of the relationships between
food supply , early feeding experiences, emotions surrounding food, and per
sonality continue to contribute to studies of abstemious or indulgent eating
behaviors, eating disorders, socioculturally desirable body weights and body
images, and the "fit" between biomedical and sociocultural concepts and
evaluations of diet-related health and illness (24). For example, overconsump
tion and obesity among Puerto Ricans living in a mainland environment of
greater plenty have been blamed, in part, on residual fear of hunger, and on
warm emotional bonds traditionally associated with feeding (216). Such cul
tures may tend to see fatness as a sign of health, wealth, and well-being-that

one is well loved and well cared for-and their perceptions of "desirable"
versus "overweight" may differ measurably from Western medical models (57,
70,216,268,307). Alternatively, cultures may put a value on "thin," as where
abstemiousness is viewed as a virtue, and slenderness sainted, such that certain
social categories, such as women and very young children are undernourished
(264). It would be constructive to have more information on how (and how
rapidly) such food ideologies and practices change at individual and cultural
levels as food resources improve .
On these questions, certain anthropologists have suggested that both protein
energy malnutrition (51, 54) and obesity (275) be analyzed as "culture-bound
syndromes" of the biomedical "culture" (336). Although modem physicians
persist in identifying them as "nutritional diseases," with a pathological etiolo
gy (feeding and eating behaviors) leading to harmful weight and health outcom
es, those in "other" cultures may recognize as a pathological syndrome neither
the food-related behaviors, the outcome (over or underweight) , nor , in the case
of protein-energy malnutrition, the process of causation . For "obese" cultures,
it would be valuable to know, in addition, the varying household dynamics as
well as cultural "ideologies" surrounding eating behaviors which contribute to
overweight in some but not all individuals who are culturally predisposed
to abundant food, obesity, and their health implications (28). Alternatively,
at least one anthropologist (205) has suggested using the "double-bind"
communications analysis and behavioral frameworks of Bateson (20) as a
first step in analyzing the household dynamics, and social, cultural, and

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PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

211

psychological factors leading to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and


bulimia. Both of these last two illnesses, as they affect mainly women, would
also be likely targets for greater feminist anthropological research.
Taken together, studies of the "psychodynamics" of cultural nutrition pat
terns continue to be significant in investigations of the biological bases and
possible evolutionary significance of indulgent or abstemious eating behaviors,
particularly in environments where food supply has traditionally been uncertain
but is now changing (24, 238a). Why and in what types of environments food
remains a major social and psychological mode of gratification are questions
raised along with considerations of possible biological bases for the eating
behaviors and the negative health consequences of overindulgence. Those
studying infant and child-feeding practices also continue to investigate social
and psychological dimensions. But such practices are currently being analyzed
not so much for their impact on personality as for their impact on nutritional
well-being, which now broadly interpreted encompasses physical, mental,
emotional, and "social" development (43, 56). Thus, the influences of diet
(feeding habits) and nutrition on "culture" and "personality" are currently
construed within a more specialized literature on eating disorders or a more
general framework on the systemic interrelationships between nutrient intake
and social-psychological functioning.

Ecological and Materialist Studies


After World War II, the movement in American anthropology away from
"culture and personality" toward studies of economic development and ecology
shifted the emphasis in dietary studies to the ecology of food production,
political economic determinants of food habits, and the nutritional consequ
ences of development (237). Dietary content, structure, and change were
studied within the "materialist" frameworks of cultural materialism (147,
280-282), cultural ecology (239, 306), human ecology (269, 320), and
socioecology (335), which also encompassed rigorous studies of dietary
"strategies" (335) and historic-demographic implications of dietary/nutritional
change (65a, 234, 239a). These interpreted "culture" (food habits, dietary
strategies) as serving economic, ecological, and nutritional ends, although
these "ends" might be in conflict particularly in cultures undergoing socioeco
nomic change.
Complementing materialist frameworks were studies of "cognitive" or "cog
nized environments" and "ethnoecology" (62, 127). "Cognized environment"
referred to native classifications and evaluations of the parts and states of their
(food) environments. Human ecologists included this as a component of their
analyses in order to compare native and scientific understandings of biological
communities and physical environments and to evaluate on scientific grounds
the implications of native resource management for productivity and ongoing

212

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MESSER

stability or "evolution" of their ecosystems. "Ethnoecology" examined native


classifications of plant and animal species, among them food species, from a
linguistic anthropological perspective (27) . In both, the structuring of food
species communities, soil and moisture conditions, and stages in crop succes
sion (e . g. classifications in swidden agriculture) received attention as they
affected human behaviors in food production . In combination, they produced
studies of noncultivated plant management and ecological succession from
both "native" and "scientific" perspectives, and more generally, documented
how people in traditional societies use and manage the "whole" ecosystem at its
various stages (36, 37, 4 1 , 98, 1 1 6, 1 1 8- 1 20, 1 68 , 20 1 , 226, 228, 258, 288).
However, neither approach contributed a significant body of knowledge of
"native" food or nutrition categories as they might correspond to Western
nutritional concepts of energy, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals .
Nor has there been easy acceptance of more "eclectic" approaches which
combine cultural and materialist perspectives to understanding native food
acquisition patterns. The brave soul who tries to consider the merit of the
native' s and the materialist's evaluations of "hunger" relative to available food
resources may still receive criticism for suggesting that what the native says
(for example, the stated "hunger" for meat) is ever a motivation for behavior,
but also for suggesting anything else but hunger for protein might motivate
certain foraging behaviors ( 1 67). More critical assessments of native state
ments about scarcity , hunger, available resources and their nutritional contents
are needed in parallel with scientific determinations ( 1 67 , 243, 249 , 3 1 0) in
order to identify possible physiological and cultural factors in hunger and
appetite relative to local nutrient supplies. The same holds true for "scientific"
statements about general or specific hungers as a motivation for human food
practices [see e . g . ( 1 5 8 , 247 , 247a) for materialist critiques of the protein
scarcity hypothesis ( 1 45a) as an explanation of Aztec cannibalism].
The careful search for "cultural" along with material factors that govern food
choices (e. g. "taste", "prestige") might provide insights on other questions as
wel l . As a case in point, optimal foraging theory and related linear program
ming techniques are useful in setting up testable hypotheses of how people may
maximize return (measured in calories, protein , or some combination of
elements) to effort (measured in energy , time, or some combination of effort
expenditure) in choosing what, where, and how to acquire their diets. Howev
er, the cultural data suggest people allocate their time and energy to meet
certain taste preferences, like that for fat or for variety , with foods that can
garnish an otherwise more monotonous diet ( 1 45 , 1 50, 1 65- 1 68). Such factors
may help "explain" departures from optimal or optimum foraging patterns
predicted by linear programming models ( 1 65 , 1 66, 168 , 302) and lead to
additional constructions of "native" ecological and nutritional categories for
further scientific and cross-cultural comparisons. Additionally, anthropolog-

PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

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ists , like economists, must keep in mind that people choose foods, not energy
or other nutrients, in their dietary selections. The manner in which these dietary
preferences influence and in some cases enhance caloric returns , nutritional
complementarity , or both are material dimensions that need further explora
tion . More careful records of dietary patterns and nutrient intake over daily and
longer periods of time in particular cultures are necessary . Such studies should
help clarify the biological and cultural parameters and "feedback mechanisms"
between nutritional adequacy or benefit and cultural preferences in human food
selection and the evolution of diet (see essays in 1 6) .
ENERGY
Other topics that have aroused conceptual and methodological
interest within ecological anthropology are those which are energy-related: (a)
how energy passes through the food chain, (b) how energy is allocated or
expended in various tasks , (c) the input-output efficiency of human cultivation
systems operating at different levels of technology, and (d) the amounts of
human, animal , plant, and fossil fuel energy it takes for foods to reach the
"tables" of modern consumers (140 , 176, 193 , 260--262, 270,272, 305 , 3 15 ) .
In common, all analysts have tried to calculate and compare the "energy costs"
of different food systems, particularly during the energy crisis of the late 1 960s
and early 1 970s. Efforts to interrelate local, regional , national , and internation
al levels of energy flow through world economic and food system models
remain preliminary . This may be in part because of the difficulty of ascertain
ing accurate cash and caloric energy costs of activities related to food produc
tion , processing, and distribution (transportation) . Practical and ethical dilem
mas of calculating human, animal , and fossil fuel encrgy expenditures in the
same equation , and of evaluating the "human cost" of producing food "more
efficiently" by human or bestial power, also arise . Although several studies
( 260) were designed to demonstrate the local ecological , energy, and nutrition
al impact of agricultural change, calculations are lacking of energy and other
nutrient cycles of major cultigens such as maize under different agricultural
technologies-including which parts are eaten by humans vs animal s , which
parts recycled as green or animal manure , and which further consumed as fuel .
Estimates are also missing of the cash, energy, and nutrient costs of consuming
"the same" diet when locally produced or purchased from increasingly nonlocal
sources . Correspondingly, there have been few attempts to document in energy
or other nutritional terms the impact of the loss of (food) self-sufficiency when
local populations become "hooked" on consumer goods (including purchased
foods) or are otherwise integrated into the larger cash economy (38 , 77, 7 8 ,
1 40, 1 4 1 , 1 4 8 , 308). Input-output analyses o f energy flow have been proposed
to analyze energy balance of individuals and households within the same
culture under variant conditions of subsistence production to cash employment
(97) , but the models employed are primitive and do not specify sufficiently

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214

MESSER

production, consumption, or the social organization of activities. In other cases


which employ energy return as a measure of foraging strategies (150, 335),
there remains the problem that humans are omnivorous consumers, who require
a large range of nutrients in addition to energy needs, all of which must be
considered in evaluating how foragers allocate their time in food pursuits .
Models in each of these cases will have to be modified to take into account the
particular ranges of food and household resources particular cultures have
available, how they are organized, and the nutritional adequacy and balance of
reSUlting diets.
More generally, ecological research on foragers , in
both their customary "bush" and novel settled environments is enlarging,
challenging, and revising anthropological perspectives on their adaptations and
evolution (194). Whether foraging easily and adequately supports human
nutritionalneeds has been questioned for both the seemingly abundant tropical
forest and for the marginal Kalahari desert zone. A nthropologists now question
whether Efe Pygmies, for example, or any other gatherer-hunter group could
subsist in the tropical rainforest at present densities in the absence of symbiotic
food exchange relationships with horticulturalists (1, 13), or whether, as a
general case, carbohydrate resources are too sparsely distributed to support
year-round foragers. They also question whether the !Kung San were adequate
ly nourished since seasonal patterns of weight loss and fertility disappear in
permanent settlements with daily rations of "mealie-meal" (329, 330). In either
case, exchange relations within and between groups seem to play an important
part in ensuring that scarce resources are more widely distributed, and may be
maintained even under conditions of substantial environmental and cultural
change (325). Future archaeological investigations of settlement placement,
seasonal and permanent availability of various animal and plant food re
sources--especially carbohydrate-rich tubers (149)-in combination with
more detailed studies of the biogenetic characteristics and densities of these
foraging populations-should provide evidence to evaluate whether these and
other foraging populations could be adequately nourished on local resources, or
were particularly adapted to dearth
Correspondingly, Eskimos and Australian aborigines seem to have been
physiologically adapted to seasonal and selective food scarcities, which put
them at risk for nutrition-related health disorders in new environments with
more abundant and carbohydrate-rich foods (26, 87, 93, 292). While these
findings certainly do not indicate that the foragers are better off in diet, health,
and security under the conditions of settled life, they do indicate the need to
consider the physiological and also sociocultural adaptations (trade and ex
change) (325) that may have been made to permanent, seasonal, or u npredict
able food shortages in traditional "foraging" economies. More data are needed
GATHERER-HUNTERS

PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

215

on (a) prehistoric diets; (b) their relationships to patterns of population size,


density, distribution, growth, and mobility; and (c) dietary trends in relation to
cultural evolution and patterns of nutrition-related disease. Such data could
help ascertain material constraints or incentives and cultural preferences or
aversions intrinsic to interrelated changes in diet, biology, and social organiza
tion (52, 338).
On this last topic, "biocultural" studies have ex
plored the biological consequences of particular dietary practices, the
sociocultural consequences of particular dietary insufficiencies, and their in
teractions. Greene (137), employing a biocultural model, showed how iodine
deficiency in highland Ecuador produced not only severe human disability in
the form of endemic cretinism, but also a range of milder mental-physical
impairments, which in local sociocultural terms were accepted as "normal." In
the iodine-deficient community he studied, cultural expectations for human
performance had been adjusted downward to accommodate moderately im
paired individuals. Thus, the whole community operated with lower standards
of tasks and achievement than unaffected communities. Earlier, Mead (224)
had argued that while cultural patterns persist under conditions of nutritional
deficiency such as lack of iodine, they are rendered less complex, or are
"slowed down. " Numerous analyses of the functional consequences of mild to
moderate protein-energy malnutrition at individual, household, and commun
ity levels have also been drawn (137, 138).
Additionally, selected nutrient deficiencies have also been hypothesized as
responsible for particular cultural behavioral patterns or social institutions. The
interrelationships between (a) hypoglycemia and aggression (30, 31), (b)
calcium deficiency and "arctic hysteria" (126, 322), (c) Windigo psychosis and
selective nutrient deficiencies (278), and (d) membership in women's posses
sion cults and women's restricted access to dietary calcium and protein (142,
174) have all been proposed as further ex.amples of the interactions between
malnutrition, behavior, and social organization.
In all cases, however, researchers lack the data on individuals or classes of
individuals to show that they suffer the low nutrient intakes and clinical
deficiencies specified. Furthermore, reports fail to indicate how natives con
ceptualize these disorders relative to other health (psychological) disorders.
Thus, in the case of women's possession cults, it is unclear that women
consistently follow sex.-linked food rules and restrictions and are therefore
predisposed to malnutrition. Nor do they indicate that, from the native point of
view, these societies are indicating to nutritionally deprived women the cultur
ally prescribed behaviors whereby they can be classified as possessed, removed
to possession cult status, and allowed to "respond" to symptoms with changes
in diets that would "solve" their nutritional problems (33). Along the same

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BIOCULTURAL STUDIES

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lines, the evidence on arctic hysteria has not provided clinical or dietary data to
indicate that the individuals labeled pibloktoq were clinically deficient in
calcium or more poorly nourished than their fellows who shared the "same"
diet. Nor has it been demonstrated that those reported to have suffered Windigo
psychosis or those who fed them "corrective" fat-rich foods were responding to
clinical symptoms. The entire "cannibal maniac" psychosis may have been a
hypothetical rather than a nutritional psychological condition ( 2 1 1 ).
The hypoglycemia hypothesis suffers in addition from the general problem
of moving directly from the individual and household level of interaction to the
social level of explanation , and the related problems of proceeding from one
biological factor to a general explanation of social behavior. Subsequent
observers in the same region have suggested furthermore that the people were
neither homicidally aggressive nor hypoglycemic, and offered the alternative
hypothesis that both aggression and low blood sugar were caused by high
alcohol consumption in the context of harsh environment and poor food ( 1 98 ) .
Problems o f clinical trials and evolutionary "theory" arise a s well where
researchers have suggested possible physiological advantages of certain food
practices on the basis of biochemical and pharmaceutical data. Some very
stimulating hypotheses have been suggested by Katz and his colleagues ( 1 72,
1 73): (a) that alkali-processing maize offers a nutritional advantage, (b) that
fava bean consumption in the presence of the gene for glucose-6-phosphate and
the disease malaria offers a selective advantage for heterozygous carriers , and
(c) that consumption of bitter manioc in the presence of the gene for sickle-cell
anemia and the disease malaria offers a selective advantage for heterozygous
carriers. Therefore , they argue, each consumption practice would have been
"selected for" in the cultural dietary pattern . The unmet challenge in each case
is to establish that the foods in question do provide a nutritional or selective
advantage over other available dietary alternatives, to show that those who
consume such foods have improved reproductive fitness and a selective advan
tage over those subsisting on alternative diets, and also to sort out the biological
and cultural ("feedback") mechanisms by which nutritional advantage gets
translated into cultural food preferences and practices . Psychologists (32) have
argued that a favorable nutritional combination would be physiologically
experienced as superior to other food combinations, and once "discovered"
would be transmitted and preserved in the cuisine of a people so that each
generation would not have to rediscover it. In cases where the nutritional
advantage is certain-as where alkali-processing enhances protein quality and
mineral content of maize-the significant cultural and evolutionary questions
would seem to be on what cultural characteristics (e . g . taste and texture as part
of the general preference for tortillas) did people select and preserve advan
tageous nutritional traits in their cuisine, and how tightly is this preserved
information linked to the nutritional advantage, so that it can be passed on in
changing dietary environments. Also, one needs more detailed study of what

PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

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combinations of foods or food processing techniques offer comparable "selec


tive advantage." While it is true that alkali-processed maize is nutritionally
superior to maize which is not for those subsisting on otherwise similar maize
diets, one also needs to consider the reasons that it would be developed,
selected, favored, and then retained over competing diets as available resources
changed or change.
For his other hypotheses, the biological documentation is also missing. Katz
lacks in vivo pharmacological studies to show that strong oxidant compounds
in fava beans and cyanate from (cooked) bitter manioc are beneficial rather than
harmful (toxic). For the latter case, one would suspect that the rapid spread of
manioc in Africa had more to do with its agronomic advantages over cereal
grains (it grows on weak soils with a low labor input) and its storability than
with its possible contribution to lowered mortality rates from sickle cell anemic
crises. More detailed studies on manioc toxicity from cyanate are also in order.
given the many sweet and bitter varieties traditionally grown and eaten (e.g.
18). His hypotheses that spices and herbs were important as antioxidants and
pharmacological agents (I72) -ideas which have been suggested by others (9,
10 I, 102)-also remain to be demonstrated with more complete data.
Similarly, in another case of suggested biocultural evolution, e.g. the cultur
al and biological adaptations to lactase deficiency, the various ways in which
cultures have overcome the problem of milk indigestibility-whether by pre
digesting itthrough yogurt or cheese culture or transformation by heat-need to
be more carefully analyzed to substantiate existing biocultural arguments about
the significance of milk intolerance in biological evolution (90-92, 147a, 218a)
In summary, the general points that food processing techniques and food
combinations developed in the past led to cuisines which were nutritionally
advantageous, and that without food processing, foods from onc area are often
inedible or less nutritious in the next, are well taken (172. 173 ,274 , 3 3 7).
However, the complete and accurate specifications of the biological and
cultural parameters to further arguments of "biocultural" evolution or "co
evolution" are lacking in most cases. All suggest additional research is neces
sary into taste and other sensory preferences by which foods are selected and
combined, biological and behavioral consequences of various nutrient intakes,
and the cultural conceptions of each in order to understand the feedback
mechanisms by which foods of superior biological value become esteemed
parts of cultural cuisines.

PRINCIPLES OF FOOD SELECTION, CLASSIFICATION,


AND DIETARY CONSTRUCTION
Sensory, cognitive, and symbolic studies of food habits. conceived in psycho
logical, structural, or semiotic terms. have tried to bridge biological and

218

MESSER

cultural parameters and explore selection and feedback mechanisms in the


determinants of food intake.

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Sensory Attributes of Food


At a basic biological level, food selection is governed by a number of sensory
characteristics such as taste/smell, texture, color (and other visual characteris
tics), even sound (as in crunchiness), and physiologically perceived character
istics like "fillingness" or "bum," which result in (a) selection or rejection, and
(b) preferred rankings and combinations among "edible" items. Liking for
sweet taste may be innate and direct the types or parts of foods humans exploit
( 1 3 1 ) . Beyond this biological code, individuals learn to accept or reject, like or
dislike, prefer or aver according to tastes that are transmitted to them as part of a
cultural cuisine , which, as a result of trial and error in the past, is presumed to
have arrived at an advantageous nutritional mix or it would not have been
retained (32) . Experiences within particular cultures affect how taste qualities
are conceived and labeled, how preferences for degrees of sweet, bitter, and
other flavors are formed, and how both of these inform intake . Some African
populations, for example, seem to be raised from an early age with a preference
for sour tastes like tamarind, which American children might find puckering .
. Early experiences with sweet may affect later tolerance and preferences for
sweetness concentrations ( 1 60). Populations also seem to differ in their prefer
ences and tolerances for bitter and salt tastes, for biting and bland flavors . It is
unclear how these preferences are shaped by genetics, cultural experience, or
both (73). "Taste" psychologists suggest people learn to accept and even like
irritating tastes such as chili pepper because they undergo an "affective" shift
and experience the sensation as pleasant and associated with the positive social
act of eating (286 , 287) . In addition, they may learn to associate initially
unpalatable products with their nutritional or other physiological effects, and so
positively value the associated flavor. In the example of chili pepper just cited,
people seem to need (and enjoy) the digestive stimulation that chili pepper
supplies; ingestion stimulates (a) saliva flow, (b) gastric secretions, and (c) gut
motility, all of which help people consume more of their staple on a high bulk
diet. Chili also supplies vitamins A and C, which may help people feel better
because of improved nutrition. People also enjoy its "buzz" and seek the
"thrill" of eating it (286, 287) .
The sense of taste has so far received little anthropological attention. While
there have been attempts to collect cross-cultural or specialized lexica of
linguistic terms for taste (95, 1 95a) , there has been limited ethnoscientific
nutritional or cross-cultural research on the chemical senses as determinants of
nutritional intake . In many cultural systems , taste and smell (often identified by
the same word) identify and sometimes rank various classes of "edible" versus
"foul" or "disgusting" items. Foods, animals, plants, and medicines can be

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classified as tasting/smelling sweet, bitter,alt, sour, pungent, foul, or insipid,


and in some cultures, acid, not-sweet, unripe, tasteless, or not-bitter. The latter
group are often taste terms that identify desirable versus undesirable taste
qualities of specimens within classes of items generally judged to be "edible. "
The chemical senses (odors--often noxious) are also used to identify indi
vidual humans and superhumans in many cultures (187, 248, 317). Superhu
mans may be furthermore distinguished by their preferences for certain types
(tastes/smells) of foods ordinarily forbidden to humans, and in certain in
stances, these superhuman food preferences may impinge on normal human
eating behavior. One example is the case where Camores Island Moslems,
when possessed by spirits, demand and receive alcoholic substances normally
prohibited (187). From human to human as well, circulation of foods, such as
sweet foods on ritual occasions, may dispel hostility, distrust, or aggression,
and promote friendship and mutual aid (e.g. 96). The association of sweet with
trust and pleasure is also developed to varying degrees in different cultures to
reward or reinforce desirable behaviors, while bitter repels and punishes.
Additionally, "strong" tastes (and smells) have come to be associated with
"uncivilized" palates in many parts of the world undergoing change to blander,
Westernized, more technologically standardized diets (3).
A few ethnomedical (58), ritual (185), and kinship-social organization (293)
studies also suggest that at least in certain languages, taste-smell terms are
extended beyond the primary chemical sense referents to label symbolic cate
gories of foods, especially animals, inappropriate for members of certain social
(age, sex, ritual) status, as well as other nonfood-related symbolic categories.
However, there has been altogether too little effort to link ethnoscientific
studies of taste/olfaction with ethnomedical studies of nutrient intake and
nutrition-related diseases, e.g. between intake of sweets and diabetes, even
where a possible native perception of the relationship between consumption of
sweets and illness symptoms is suggested ( 12) in a population where incidence
of adult-onset diabetes is quite high.
Texture and visual properties are two other sensory characteristics by which
foods are judged edible, preferred, and appropriate for a particular ethnic
cuisine or life style. Texture along with flavor in large part shapes what makes
foods familiar and may influence acceptance of new foods. Existing knowledge
of the vocabulary by which textures are described and compared cross
culturally is even more impoverished than that for taste. In Africa, where the
basic staple is porridge ranging from "thick" ("library paste" consistency) to
"thin, watery gruel," different groups distinguish themselves by the texture
they prefer in their staple food. For purposes of calculating nutritional (caloric)
values and densities of similar diets in different cultures, or calculating diets
within the same culture over different seasons, it would be useful to have
ethnographic reports on the ratio of water to pounded or ground meal and on the

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MESSER

ratio of porridge to complementary gravy or relish. Textural properties, such as


whether cereals are ordinarily prepared in the form of grains, grits, or bulghur
rather than in the form of flours or meals, often affect acceptability of new
foods, as do the glutinous properties that affect the suitability of particular
grains for producing familiar foods like bread, tortillas, and rice dishes,
respectively. "Crispness," "crunchiness," and "freshness"-also in part textu
ral properties-are sometimes important in the selection of food items by
classes and by individuals within a class, as in Western culture, where Barthes
has suggested there is a symbolic opposition between "crisp, brisk, sharp"
foods and "soft, soothing, sweet" foods (17).
Visual characteristics such as color, shape, or overall appearance also affect
acceptability and food preferences and often form aspects of food symbolism.
They may be the basis of most folk classifications of cereal grains, legumes,
sauces, and dishes, and may be further developed symbolically (227). Color
codes "safe" as well as "appropriate" foods (2 1 8), and provides an example of
Sperber' s (304) adage that foods or aspects of foods "out of place" identify
special social contexts (e.g. in Boston on St. Patrick's Day, even the beer and
the bagels are dyed green). Cosmic color symbolism in food and medicine
(241, 316) has been extensively analyzed for certain African and Asian cul
tures, while in urban South America, people have been known to disparage
local in favor of i mported ingredients through selective toasts in their patriotic
colors (246).
The shapes in which foods are presented, whether "natural" or "trans
formed," recognizable or not, and their culturally developed symbolism consti
tute additional visual characteristics that in some cases are also ethnic or class
markers . As a case in point, the male-female symbolism of yams, as it shapes
certain cultural practices, has been analyzed and psychoanalyzed in detail (221,
317), as have male-female characteristics of foods more generally (225, 299).
Perception of physiological effect provides a final category of sensory
attributes, and includes relative "fillingness," food (or nutrient) specific crav
ings, and classifications of safe versus dangerous foods. Various African
cultures claim that certain grains are more filling than others; that they provide
feelings of physiological satiety-a "turgid" feeling in the stomach-to varying
degrees, which suppress hunger pains for shorter or longer intervals (273);
Hondurans feel that tortillas of maize are more filling and maize stretches one
third farther than sorghum (74). Such rankings, people say, account in part for
their reluctance to switch to grains such as sorghum which they are told are
more productive.
Many cultures put a value on "meat" and claim that without it they are
"hungry" no matter how much vegetable food they have ingested (154, 193). It
is not clear from most reports, however, whether their appetite is for "protein"

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PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

221

or for the fat, s ait , or in m any cases, the. festivities that go along with m eat
consumption ( 1 65 , 273). Peopl e also seem to crave the rel ish and spicy
condiments without which they say they have limited appetite for their high
starch diets (273 ) . A ltern atively , certain foods or food combinations are be
l ieved to be necess ary because they partake (and contribute) differential ly in
l ife-giving force ( 1 5 7, 3 3 9) , because they are "cooked" or "meal" versus snack
foods , "juicy" as opposed to "dry , " or sim ply "nutritious " and "vitamin-rich"
(64) . Dimensions of foods , food groups, and their rules for combinations-to
yield a com parative body of data on concepts of "ethnonutrition"-have so far
not been compiled , although most nutrition al studies usually do l ist cultural
food "stapl es , " "superfoods , " or "key foods " (8, 15 9, 250) and several anthro
pologists h ave tried to identify "health (nutritional) factors" in dietary selection
(76, 76a) . These l atter, however, h av e been constructed by the analysts out of
the data on nutrient intak e-which foods cluster together-rather than lexical
or locally described ethnonutritional concepts .
Negative short-term physiological effects such as allergic reactions m ay ,
correspondingly , form t h e basis of food avoidances ( \ II). Other adverse
physiological reactions culturally encoded as food dislikes may be at l east in
part genetically based , as for example, where lactose intol eranc e h as b een
interpreted to be at the root of milk avoidances in certain cultures (92, 1 47a,
2 1 8a, 30 I ). Nevertheless, the physiological argument still does not explain
why certain l actose-intolerant popUlations , like th e Chinese, do not like cul
tured milk products which they should be abl e to digest.
Final ly , there are other foods that by virtue o f sensory or other cultural
symbolic properties are considered to be d angerous , to produce h arm , and
therefore avoided. Ethnographers hav e noted how n ew foods are c lassifi ed as
"good" or "b ad" for adults, children, women, or some combination of soc i al
c ategories on the basis of their perceiv ed physiological effect-wh ether they
are easily digested or m ak e people sick (64). More generally, foods in m any
cultures are nomin ally considered to be "strengthening" or dangerous as a result
of their origins, h andling, processing, and ultim ately contexts of ingestion
( 1 5 7) . Within these cognitive c ategories, especially where diets are c arefully
regul ated and restricted , individu als of species m ay be situationally c lassified
as "clean" (harml ess) or tabooed (unhealthy) on the basis of circumstantial
evidence. Such sets of rul es seem to be particularly developed in indigenous
low l and South Americ an societies (1 8, 40, 1 5 7, 27 l a) and also in Southeast
Asia ( 1 86 , 209). What is still l ittle understood , however, is how perfectly
innocuous foods come to b e l ab eled as dangerous and so disgusting that they
elicit n ausea and vomiting if accidentally ingested . Sensory and semiotic
approach es to food rules and taboos h av e clev erly analyzed why certain n atural
animal and plant c ategories should be interpreted as "anomalous" and m ade the

222

MESSER

target of special cultural attention , but this does not explain such violent
physiological reactions ( 1 54 , 286). Nor do they explain how people come to
accept and even to savor dangerous foods .

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Cultural, Symbolic, and Cognitive D imensions


Moving from sensory judgments and preferences to symbolic aspects of diets ,
anthropologists have also considered-probably at greater length and in more
detail-"cultural factors" that are constructed from sensory data and other
information . " Hot-cold," "wet-dry ," "male-female," "heavy-light," "yin
yang ," "clean-poison," "ripe-unripe," as well as "flavor," "sharpness," "itchi
ness , " and "color" are examples of binary or humoral categories which are built
from various elements and used singly or in combination to classify food and
direct food intake in many parts of the world (2, 4 , 5, 2 1 , 1 25 , 203 , 209, 2 1 0 ,
2 2 9 , 242 , 27 l a , 293 ) . Such classifications interrelate a number of different
domains, such as flora , fauna, medicine, health, ritual , and social rel ations,
depending on the culture . Humoral classifications probabl y reach their greatest
elaborations in Asian , particularly Indian and Chinese cultures, where they
form a part of a complex system of medicine and philosophy, but they are
equall y pervasive in some South American lowland cultures where they sort out
and bring together domains of sex , color, symbolic temperature , geography,
and i ntergroup relations (27 1 a) .
More generally, the symbolic meaning and nutritional significance of these
dimensions have been shown to vary according to cultural context as well as
individual inclination to "follow the rules" ( 1 86 , 2 1 7 , 229) . Hot-cold classi
fications , as a case in point, display great variab ility i n how they are conceived
and how they operate in local dietary and health practices in different parts of
the world and within the same culture area. Degrees of shared knowledge or
. agreement on hot-cold, the pervasiveness of the idiom, or its cultural import
ance can vary even within the same cultural communities. In the absence of a
written tradition or authoritative sources , there are often no absolute or author
itative classifications for popular cultures that use hot-cold as a standard to
classify foods , diagnose i l l ness , and maintain or recover health . People seem to
combine inherited knowledge with cause and effect reason i ng from the basic
hot-cold principle of balancing opposites in particular curing contexts. They
evaluate the physiological effects of food and medicines in particular contexts,
and so certify their classifications (and the classificatory procedures) for future
reference. The natural h istories of items, their processing and the conditions
under which they are served, can also affect the hot-cold or other "health"
classifications (I5 7 , 1 86 , 229 , 235).
Nevertheless , hot-cold c lassifications may have little practical value for
determining the majority of foods that people ordinaril y eat. While all members

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PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

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of a population may know of the potential existence of such categories,


individuals may refer to such categories for the purpose of food selection only
under conditions of physiological stress (pregnancy, illness, old age) rather
than for routine selection of dietary items (229). More significant factors in
ordinary food selection are usually flavor and cost. Notwithstanding , people do
not easily abandon hot-cold classifications , which give them an easy symbolic
handle to interrelate their edible and health environment (229) . It is necessary
for modern Western health practitioners to understand such classifications in
order to prescribe diets ( l 48a, 229) and health behaviors , such as oral rehydra
tion in the case of diarrhea ( 1 00) , so that they will not go against or be thwarted
by hot-cold beliefs and practices . For those introducing new foods to infants
and children, the perceived hot-cold values (primarily whether, during the
initial trials , the new foods made infants sick) may affect the acceptance of new
foods ( 1 32); although in some contexts, new foods and medicines may be
perceived as "nutritious" and outside of the hot-cold evaluation system
altogether (64, 229) .
Semiotic Studies

Elements of diet have been analyzed alternatively as aspects of a "food code" in


which foods or components of foods--especially their manners of preparation
or transformation or serving--express other aspects of social relations, cultural
identity, and the sexual division of labor. Potential foods classified as "inedi
ble" for everyone , for certain social categories, or for all but certain ritual
contexts have been viewed as separating or contrasting human from nonhuman,
one's own culture from other cultures, pure from impure , complete from
incomplete , or other fundamental distinctions (82-85 , 1 9 1 , 3 1 1 ) . Further
sociocultural selections of foods as preferred or less preferred under ritual or
ordinary circumstances , as good to give to certify friendship or to withhold to
signify enmity or social distance, have been similarly interpreted as cultural
constructions that take into account certain intrinsic qualities of the items ( 8 1 )
that undergo more arbitrary cultural elaborations , and may initiate further
social exchange.
Following Levi-Strauss's ( 1 92, 1 96, 1 97) analyses of food types and trans
formations in South American mythologies, linguistic anthropologists have
explored the "food code" presented in myth and retold in ordinary and ritual
food preparations as a way in which people mark social distinctions , com
plementarities, and transformations. Although the culinary lexicon varies
( 1 95), such analyses explicate why food items and patterns are "good to think"
rather than simply "good to eat . " Eclectic approaches to food symbolism add
that such beliefs and practices may also be ecologically, medically , and
socially sound ( 1 86 , 202). Along these lines, Levi-Strauss pointed out that

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myths may also preserve knowledge of potentially edible though less preferred
biological species in the environment; a corpus of knowledge that can be
referred to in time of dearth for nutritional sustenance ( 1 96) .
Cultures vary i n the extent to which they focus on food as symbol and the
symbolic properties with which they imbue it. While there has been little
cross-cultural comparison on the degree to which cultures elaborate and empha
size the "food code" (see 1 35 for some discussion) , H i ndu food classifications
and rules of food exchange , which elaborate principles of social organization ,
caste hierarchy, relative caste status , and cultural identity, have probably
attracted more attention than the elaborations in other cultures ( 1 7 8 , 1 79) . The
close association of particular deities with foods and food attributes (7, 1 07 ) ,
and the rigid regulations surrounding a l l aspects o f consumption on the human
leve l , especially those surrounding food exchanges between members of differ
ent castes and different sexes, have prompted ecological , h istorica l , and social
symbolic explanations, as have the background to the banning of beef eating
and the elevation of vegetarianism to privileged status . H istorical origins,
"causes," "function s , " and "consequences" of the sacred cow are in dispute , as
are those of h istorical bans on pig-eating in other cultures (79) , although in each
case, a combination of "material" and "symbolic" interests seem to be in
volved. While other cultures use food to mark or build relative prestige and
social status , the ways in which castes manipulate food transactions to improve
their relative status (2 1 5) and the emotions with which "polluting" (downward
ly mobile) foods are charged, set H indus apart. Fasting for spiritual merit and as
a political tactic may also have been used more dramatically in India than
elsewhere , as Gandhi was able to draw on the total range of heightened
emotions surrounding food . poverty, anguish, dearth , and traditional values on
abstemiousness and refusal to accept food from spiritual inferiors as a route to
spiritual power.
Like others, H indus have been shown to vary in the fastidiousness with
which they observe food regulations . Within communities. variations may
signify (a) variant interpretations of the rules, (b) unavoidable conflicts where
different rules demand different patterns of deference in giving and receiving
food , or (c) a disincl ination to follow the rules. Food can thus serve as a vehicle
of "gastropolitics" which enables one to protest one ' s position or communicate
one ' s dissatisfaction with the status quo, as in the case of a woman who protests
her particular status by lapses in hospitality or deference (6) . The subtleties of
using food to communicate individual messages about social reJationships and
social status, given the shared sociocultural rules , are part of the "code" rather
than "intracultural variatio n . "
Alternatively, people ' s inclination t o "follow the rules" may change as
people move away from local communities that give support and meaning to
careful observances ( 1 7 1 ) . Festival patterns are often retained. even as day-to-

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PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

225

day food behaviors change when people move. They are one way in which
ethnic identity, where threatened by "acculturative" food forces , may be
maintained. Communities and individuals also illustrate substantial leeway in
interpreting regulations to suit personal or group historical circumstances (45 ) ,
particularly as o n e moves away from t h e cultural "center" to cultural
"periphery . " There , rules may be less strict or combined with other directives .
An extreme example is provided by most cases of "health food" faddism which
use concepts of natural foods and syncretize Indian and other Eastern cosmolo
gical beliefs with Western consumer dietary behavior and provide a good
contrast to culturally inherited rule-buund fuud behaviors . The rules by which
such "syncretistic" vegetarians learn to eat a nutritionally balanced diet, and the
amount of agreement in philosophy and practice among them, demand more
than the anecdotal or individual case study attention they have so far received
( 1 69). The ideological, social , and nutritional impact of Dietfor a Small Planet
and Food First ( 1 88 , 1 89) among different age and social sets in American
culture could form a complementary study to document the interrelated socia l ,
symbolic , a n d material interests i n anti-meat eating in the United States.
Food has also been analyzed as material and symbol which marks the
prevailing sexual division of labor, social class, or ethnic identity . O ' Laugh
l i n ' s (245) symbolic-economic analysis of "Why the Mbum Kpau women don ' t
eat chicken" showed how the sexual division o f labor, male dominance over
production (control of land and granaries) and reproduction (al lotment of
women as wives) were reified in the food restrictions on women (women could
not eat chicke n , goat, or the preferred white flour porridge) . In this northwest
Chad society, women were subordinate to men in all things , including diet, and
therefore prohibited from eating chickens, which , like the women who raised
the m , were kept for food production and reproduction .
More generally, Goody ( 1 35) explored why some cultures have "high" and
"luw" cuisines, and some leave the food dimension of culture relatively
undifferentiated i f not underdeveloped . He suggested a general relationship
between the existence of such differential cuisines and the social organization
of production-including differential access to food processing technology,
foods traded over long distances, and the presence of available foods and social
statuses that would allow for complex differentiation in the food mode-but the
generalization needs more careful and thorough development and testing.
Barthcs ( 1 7) by contrast, dealt with food symbolism and its relationships to
social c lassifications in modern state societies . He considered the various
cultural meanings attributed to substances like sugar and coffee by different
national groups, such as the French versus the American. He also tried to
identify certain "tastes" with particular social classes-e . g . lower class prefer
ences generall y for extremely sweet or strong flavors .
Food is also a marker of ethnic identity via ethnic cuisine, which is charac-

226

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terized by items of particular flavor and type, recipes that combine food
elements in particular ways,meal fonnats that aggregate the dishes in predict
able manners, and meal cycles that alternate meal formats into ordinary and
festival meals as wll as particular types of festive eating events. Although such
cultural food patterning and group sharing rules can also be conceived as an
epiphenomenon of the material basis and prevailing social organization of
production, dietary structure or foodways have also been investigated as a
separate problem.
Ethnic Identity, Enculturation, and Dietary Structure
Dietary structure, content, and change have been analyzed for either cultural or
nutritional ends, sometimes both, and continuities/discontinuities conceptual
ized in several ways. Goode (133) has reviewed the strengths and weaknesses
of various concepts and methods used to study cultural patterning in food
systems, used singly or in combination---observation, interview, and ex
perimental "game" methods (114). Studies of "ethnic" diets, for example,
usually report food item frequencies and evaluations in terms of core, second
ary core, and periphery (alternatively described as "superfoods"/"focal" foods/
"staples" as opposed to items less frequently, or infrequently consumed), and
are based on data of actual food preparation,observations,or reports of eating
activities plus additional interviews (1 14, 199, 250). Differences or changes in
the frequencies of selected items usually constitute measures of "enculturation"
or "deculturation" and are then related to changes in the food supply (such as
the unavailability of the former staple or fresh vegetables as people move from
rural to urban areas), the prestige associations of certain foods, or the time or
technological constraints of the food provider/preparer ( 1 62 , 182).
Other investigators (255), rather than analyzing single items, have used
factor analysis to identify clusters of "modern" or "traditional" foods. Drawing
on both the records of dietary intake and additional historical information,they
have found, not surprisingly, that people may incorporate distinct sets of
modem elements alongside traditional items,recipes,or meal formats,and that
such patterns of incorporation crosscut dietary differences due to household
"structural" variables such as income, educational levels, and individualistic
food preferences. The nutritional impact of such "modem" additions can be
described and measured by detailing where modern foods substitute for tradi
tional items (core foods, secondary core,periphery), and then calculating the
relative percent of calories and food expenditures (or total quantities of particu
lar nutrients, like cholesterol) accounted for by the modern items within these
or locally defined food categories, like "staples" and "relish." Measuring the
percent of calories supplied in households by,say, sorghum over maize,would
be an easy check on the impact of a sorghum promotion project, and also

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indicate in economic terms the "acculturation" effect (on food staples) of a


project .
Alternatively , continuities may be traced through certain types of pattern
rules, such as (a) segregation or separation (as in the distancing of milk and
meat in Jewish laws of kashruth) , (b) item combinations (as in the joining of
staple with relish in African societies, or pasta with gravy in Italian American
meal formats), and (c) ordering of flavors or items (as in the custom of
beginning or ending the meals with sweets in rural Mexican and American
cultures , respectively) ( 1 33 , 1 34, 1 34a).
A group of projects studying the food habits of the Italian community of
Philadelphia (66, 1 34, 1 34a, 3 1 4) have suggested that the level of "shared
sociocultural rules and their consequences for nutritional behavior" is best
shown at the more inclusive levels of "meal formats" (proportions of different
foods that are stressed and unstressed) and "meal cycles . " Examining all four
levels in the food system, they concluded that while contemporary Italian
American diets were quite variable at the "individual item" and "recipe"
levels-where they had been transformed by extreme changes in the foods
available, food processing, and exposure to meals outside the home, the use of
mass communication (especially advertising) to create mass demand , and the
nature of work and leisure activity cycles, especially women's work inside and
outside the home---continuities in meal formats and cycles persisted alongside
changes in items and menus. By studying intervals in time longer than the meal
or day, and social units larger than the household, they found it was possible to
discover shared patterns (e . g . the "rules" for marking Fridays, weekends , and
holidays with particular formats), flexibility rules (e . g . the ways in which
buffet formats allowed individuals to incorporate both American and Italian
content into traditional meals) , and general trends in food classifications (e . g .
regular alternation o f "gravy" versus "platter" meals, sauces described .in terms
of color, taste , texture, greasiness, spiciness, and thermal characteristics), and
preferences (e . g . a younger generation of Italian-Americans socialized in the
1 960s and 1 970s who prefer foods transformed from their natural state-e . g.
meat without head or feet but still recognizable) .
The study formed part of a larger Russell Sage project on gastronomic
categories (85 , 1 34a, 267 , 327) , which examined distinct regional and ethnic
cuisines in the United States (Northeast urban ethnic Italian, Southern rural and
urban, black and white, and Native American Sioux) employing frameworks
that emphasized social contexts (type of occasion, time, and location) that
affected food intakes . They were also able to report the relative significance of
extra-household eating events in the food lives of individuals-which proved to
be a frequent food force . One project incorporated an investigation of the
relationships between diet, obesity, and hypertension (327) . Although reports
from the projects so far indicate more the social and cultural than nutritional

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228

MESSER

implications, they have pointed out some of the limitations of "household


survey" data if unsupplemented by reports of food taken outside the house .
Organizers also hope that through such careful evaluations of structured food
relations, mathematicians will be able to develop computer programs to de
scribe the distinct rules governing different diets, particularly food sharing, and
use computers to chart the nutritional implications of particular dietary changes
(86, 139). The usefulness of such models, however, remains to be demons
trated.
In more "popular" fashion (284, 285), foodways have also been dealt with in
terms of the formation and persistence of cultural "cuisine"-a term used to
describe the "culturally elaborated and transmitted body of food-related prac
tices of any given culture" which includes:
1. The selection of a set of basic (staple or secondary) foods
2. The frequent use of a characteristic set of flavorings
3. The characteristic processing (e.g. chopping, cooking) of such foods
4. The adoption of a variety of rules dealing with acceptable foods and
combinations, festival foods, the social context of eating and the symbolic uses
of foods.
How ethnic groups "mark" the foods in a new environment by particular
spicing and preparation patterns, but also how festival or ordinary foods of a
majority culture become "marked" by surrounding them with typical foods
within the typical structure of the meal, also indicate forms of ethnic con
tinuities. An example of continuity in meal structure is the case of Italian
Americans who eat turkey with dressing on Thanksgiving while retaining the
traditional escarole soup, pasta (main course of turkey), expresso structure of
the Italian meal (134, 134a). Alternatively, ethnic foods may move from a
minority culture to the majority, as in the acceptance of kosher-style corned
beef and gefilte fish (traditional "Jewish" foods) as "American" which some
have interpreted as signs that the ethnic group has "arrived" (214).
Ethnic cuisine may also be analyzed in terms of (a) the supralocal macro
cuisine, and within it, systematic community and subcommunity variations by
which individuals and groups establish their distinctive identities (e.g. "sweet"
sauces among savory sauces in Malaysia, "thin" vs "thick" soups among
Eastern European Jews); (b) the types of flavorings or processing that render
foods "cultural" and therefore familiar and acceptable (e.g. preparation of
ersatz "Vietnamese" hot condiment from American condiments by refugees in
Pennsylvania (286), or the mixing of new grain meals or flours to a typical
cultural consistency by certain African groups); and (c) the structure, contents,
and variability of eating "events," particularly the formats of festivals ( 1 34,
134a).
. Eating events may also be examined within an ecological framework that

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evaluates the timing and patterning of food exchange in the festival cycle as
ecological regulators-which control quantities of livestock, such as pigs,
relative to other food resources , such as sweet potatoes (269), or promote
nutritional suffici ency within a population by distributing high quality protein
and other nutrients to those in want, particularly at times of the year whcn thc
poorer segments of the population may be food short ( 1 2 1 ) . Even in contempor
ary peasant societies , the scheduling and activities that take place in the annual
round of Saints ' days festivities may ensure the poorer members of the popUla
tion high quality food on as many as 1 0% of the days of the year (80 , 1 36) , and
ritual obligations between patrons and clients may augment nutrient intake of
the poor during hard times ( 3 8 , 1 83 ) . Conversely , festival food preparations
and consumption havc bccn vicwed as wasteful ( 1 23 ) in that natives spend
grain on b eermaking when they might ration it for consumption in the future
l ean season , or expend resources for symbolic rites and reasons that might go
toward subsistence and superior nutritional choices. To condemn such analyses
as "nutritional materialism" ( 8 3 ) , however, does not advance understanding of
how such practices evolved and why they are maintained from either material
or sociocultural perspectives; such critiques only suggest why , from a semiotic
perspective, such customs are "fitti ng" and further social and cultural identity.
Economic Factors
Sensory , symbolic, and structural dimensions notwithstanding, the overriding
considerations in dietary constructions seem to be economic. Even when
peopl e have nutritional knowledge on what would be good to eat , considera
tions of flavor and cost take precedence in food choices, and economic factors
l imit further whether p eople can satisfy their taste choices (44, 76, 76a) .
Although it has b een argued that people often make uneconomic and poor
nutritional choices in the interests of consuming relatively expensive but
"prestigious" foods , this does not weaken the generalization that economic
constraints set l imits on food sel ection and consequent nutritional status,
particularly for those subsisting pri ncipally on marketed foods. Peopl e may
appear "uneconomic " in their desire to break the monotony of diets, as where
Richards recorded B emba natives often paid exhorbitant sums to merchants for
dried, salted fish if they had gone weeks without relief from their bulky cereal
diet (273 ) . Additionally, some have speculated, looking at the phenomenon of
"junk foods , " that such items may m eet n eeds for sweets, fats , other flavors ,
and denser calories in h igh bulk diets. However, to take such a positive
nutritional position, one must first ascertain (a) that there are sufficient material
resources to buy (provide) enough of the staple and secondary foods for all
individuals eating from a common food basket , such that intakes of other
nutritious foods do not suffer, and (b) that those eating "junk foods" are not
sating themselves with calories from junk foods that destroy their appetites for

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more nutritious calories. In either case, if the concentrated calories from


purchased snacks are additions rather than substitutions for basic nutritional
items, then they might be viewed with caution as improving caloric density and
calorie intake, particularly among the very young, who have difficulty taking in
enough calories on high-bulk diets, if there is sufficient other food, oral
hygiene, and moderation in quantity. However, it is still questionable whether
such needs might not be met at lower cost by home-produced snacks.
Choice of staples varies by economic position; reciprocally, diet has been
used as an indicator of econoinic and nutritional well-being, including overall
sufficiency of energy and protein intakes within populations stratified by age
and sex. The relative pecent of calories supplied by the principal staple and the
threshhold at which people change from more expensive and preferred dietary
staples---e. g . from cassava to rice in Brazil, or from less to more preferred rice
varieties in Sri Lanka-have been suggested as measures or threshholds of
poverty or hunger (94, 263). Substantial energy intakes from sucrose, often
inexpensive and government subsidized, may be a further indicator of impover
ished diet as workers indulge in the sweet taste that provides a "quick rush of
energy" to motivate them for work at low cost (232a). The historical signifi
cance of sugar as a cheap energy source to fuel the growth of industry and the
consequences of the sugar demand for the growth of plantation economies have
been suggested by Mintz (234), among others. The share of sugar in the food
structure of contemporary modernizing economies begs similar attention.
Seasonal or more permanent scarcity may affect not only food choices, but
also the social relations surrounding food. Food rationing-reduction from two
to one meal per day-may begin soon after the harvest and a period of feasting
(123, 273), and affects the pacing of grain consumption, food sharing relations,
and nutritional status over an annual cycle. The flexibility with which hospital
ity obligations shrink as food supplies dwindle has been reported in a number of
studies ( 109, 273). A model that graphs how social cooperation increases as
resources go from desperate to adequate and then drops off as there is plenty
(190) suggests a way to quantify such reltionships, but the model has not been
carefully illustrated with quantified resource and social data from any particular
culture.
Also along economic lili.es, anthropologists mong others (318) have begun
to consider the time budget of the food provider or preparer-usually the focal
female (head food decision-maker of a household)-as an additional economic
factor affecting food production and food selections. Food providers have been
shown to calculate the amount of time as well as cash that must be allocated to
the procurement and preparation of different foods (including time and cash
costs of fuel) under different conditions of household organization and cash
work (65, 142, 231a). Popkin and colleagues (265, 266), investigating the
factors associated with vitamin A deficiency in the Philippines, suggested that

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PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

23 1

children of women traders had lower intakes than children of nonworking


mothers because commercial women did not take the time to gather ingredients
and prepare vitamin-A rich vegetable sauces. This hypothesis, however, re
mains untested either with ethnographic or dietary data. The shift from home or
small (individual) scale to industrialized processed foods has also been sug
gested to interfere with women's income, and the delicious variety of snacks
women produced at home with traditional food technologies ( 1 9, 300), but
nutritional implications have not been carefully traced.
More generally, the relatively fixed number, timing , structure , and contents
of meals and their relationships to social structure and cultural values may also
be affected by socioeconomic change. Rotenberg (283) analyzed how changing
work schedules in post World War II Viennese society caused a shift from
five to three meals a day, and also the consumption of more convenience (pre
pared) foods. It would be valuable to have comparable studies from other
areas in order to assess how such shifts in employment patterns along with
increasing industrialized processing of food delocalize consumption patterns,
increase consumption of "convenience" foods, and thereby affect nutrient
intakes .
Finally, whether malnutrition is an outcome of poverty or "bad" cultural
feeding habits continues to be debated. Materialists tend to see the problem as
one of socioeconomic discrimination while others (5 1 ) blame cultural nutrition
al and economic "ignorance ," and argue that nutrition education not just more
economic wherewithal is needed to teach households how better to feed their
young on scarce resources. Although one can make a case for either position,
one might more reaonably show how the combination . of ccological and
economic constraints limit the range of choices and create other conditions
affecting health and nutrition, while within such constraints, cultural tastes and
values , as well as ideas of adequate nutrition and health beliefs and practices
dictate actual food and behavioral choices .
Along the same lines , materialist studies, although they often draw on more
"hard" data than symbolic studies, must still specify under what cultural
conditions and in what social contexts , economic and ecological constraints
will dominate consumption decisions. Existing materialist tracts that see com
mercial concerns or ecological constraints-not other cultural factors and tastes
dominating food choices and more generally consumption (282)--can still not
totally explain food preferences , such as the American preference for beef over
pork, even when the latter is cheaper, and the cultural reasons why many
Americans (and others) in different ages and under different socioeconomic and
cultural conditions, choose not to eat pork. The nutritional implications of how
cultural-symbolic and material factors are weighted in changing sociocultural
and ecological-economic environments, correspondingly , also remain to be
explored .

232

MESSER

NUTRITIONAL AND HEALTH CONSEQUENCES

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With the possible exception of modern Western society, no cultural group


evaluates the individual foods and combinations which it ingests in terms of the
scientific categoriesnergy, fat, protei n , vitamins , and minerals . Major
questions remain as to how people select diets that are conducive to ongoing
nutrition and good health, particularly in changing nutritional environments ,
and the dietary prospects for the future .
Nutritional Wisdom

Anthropologists studying the "nutritional wisdom" of traditional diets, particu


larly in settings rapidly undergoing socioeconomic and cultural change, l ike to
note how cultures in the past seem to have identified (a) food habits that are
nutritionally beneficial ( 1 72), and (b) foods that protect from or cure nutritional
and other health problems ( 1 0 I , 1 02 , 1 75 ) . B iochemical analyses of traditional
foods such as salts ( 1 84) and wild greens (277 ) , for example, have shown how
such indigenous substances and food combinations are often more complete
nutritionally than their modern industrially produced or marketed substitutes.
Balanced traditional diets have also been analyzed as healthier than modern fat

and sugar-rich mixes . Analyses of hot-cold rules for balancing foods , and in
certain instances, water and salt intake have suggested that they ensured a
steady intake of a variety of foods and nutrients (9), and electrolyte balance
(2 1 9) , while in other cases , symbolic rules for "heating" leftover foods thereby
disinfected them (99)-all salutory health practices.
Contrariwise, there are styles of feeding, reactions to illness, activity pat
terns, and general diets that give rise to special problems of under or over
nutrition, spedfic nutrient deficiencies, or food poisoning . There are also food
restrictions that are unhealthy and nutritionally adverse for certain members of
a population. The latter include food restrictions on pregnant and lactating
women in certain cultures (2 1 0) and child feeding rules that lead to protein
energy malnutrition (5 1 ) , vitamin A deficiencies ( 3 1 9) . or in some cases , the
opposite problem of obesity from overeating or overindulgence in sugar or fats
given cultural tastes . The "evolution" and perpetuation of "maladaptive" prac
tices , particularly restrictive feeding rules, have been discussed in "material"
terms ( 1 47 , 245 ) . Real or perceived food insufficiencies and the desire of
dominant groups in a population or suciety tu remain duminant are often
implicated in nutritional discrimination against particular classes of indi
viduals. To understand the biological and sociocultural "selective" pressures
that favored the origin and persistence of such rules and behaviors . however.
investigators need more information on the history behind particular beliefs and
practices and the movements and mixings of the populations or other
sociocultural units who have them. In particular instances. health programs

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PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

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have shown that maladaptive food practices had a very shallow history, and
were therefore easily amenable to change. Investigators explained which cus
toms were recent and slightly modified the resource base so that all, but
especially women, had access to more nutrients (50) .
Certain populations may also be biologically more at risk for specific
nutrition-related disorders, such as glucose intolerance and hypertension,
although the relative contributions of genetics , diet, and activity patterns
(energy balance and life styles including "stress") to these and other nutrition
related diseases remain to be worked out for contemporary populations under
going change in all three dimensions (23 , 26, 28 , 87, 1 5 5 , 200, 327) . More
studies of local perceptions of the linkages between specific dietary compo
nents, life styles , and health problems, such as the relationships between sugar
intake and diabetes, salt intake and hypertension, and body-size/obesity and
related health problems, along with reports of the feeding customs through
which children learn to like sugar, salt, and food in what may be higher than
healthy quantities (232, 232a) would help identify cultural factors inducing or
not protecting against diet-related disease.
Relatively sudden shifts in available foods and customary activities are often
faulted for the failure of people to eat wisely, or' "culture" to identify and
transmit nutritional wisdom in rapidly and vastly modified dietary contexts .
Alternatively, the swiftly altering eating customs by which populations may be
losing reproductive fitness due to nutrition-related disease have been described
in terms of "gastro-anomie" ( 1 1 2) , the modem foodway where each individual
fends for him or herself, and group cultures have less control over an indi
vidual's diet. A more productive option is to examine such "anomie" as a set of
highly structured, though ever changing, behaviors that vary by class and
subculture within single countries . C . Lomnitz-Adler' s (204) carefully consid
ered the spatial , temporal , social , and cultural dimensions of eating in Mexico
in an analysis (by social class) that linked semiotic and structural approaches to
food habits and social relations surrounding food with the changing social
organization of production inside and outside the household, and extrahouse
hold sociocultural influences. His combination of his historical structural
analysis with a more dynamic socioeconomic analysis incorporates symbolic
aspects of the food system with an ethnic and class analysis of social history by
means of food and indicates mUltiple routes to explore in nutritional changes.
The Nutritional Impact of Dietary Change

Urbanization , commercialization of agriculture, and expansion of international


trade in food have jointly caused a reduction in food self-sufficiency ( 1 89,
254). Most anthropological studies have shown that as local groups move away
from subsistence agriculture toward cash crop production and reliance on
purchased foods, malnutrition increases ( I I7). Cash to buy food may be

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234

MESSER

insufficient; additionally, people may not use cash resources as nutritionally


wisely as they might food income in kind ( 1 1 , 324). In cash-oriented econo
mies where people purchase much of their food, there seems to be a regular
(and not startling) relationship between income, dietary diversification, and
nutritional well-being. Below a certain income level at which people can
purchase adequate food, they fare worse nutritionally than those above that
income level, although food choices, particularly at lower middle income
levels , somewhat qualify this generalization (75, 259, 27 1 , 29 1, 326).
Agricultural development schemes have been shown to worsen nutritional
situations in several ways. Irrigated cash cropping and cattle schemes usually
undermine the land and subsistence base of the poor, in some instances, even
"efficiently" favoring production of animal feed over food for people (77, 78) .
Highly technologized Green Revolution agriculture eliminates many of the
marginal subsistence activities that traditionally allowed small holders to sup
plement their incomes as laborers in food production or food processing (334).
Modem emphasis on monocrop production also reduces the variety of products
the land traditionally yielded. Commercialization and modernization schemes
often benefit the producers of the factors of production (machinery, hybrid
seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides) and controllers of irrigation and credit
rather than smallholders (153). Respondents report factors of production may
not arrive on time or at all, or new agricultural "packages" may undermine the
ongoing productivity of the land; in either case reducing the short- and long-run
nutritional options, and usually making impossible a return to the initial diet
(77, 78). Only where governments consciously discouraged food imports and
thereby promoted basi<; food production for home markets did nutrition seem to
improve, although the dynamics of changes in dietary intake are often not
adequately reported in such nutritional studies (2 1 2 , 2 1 3 ) . It was assumed that
rural children benefited from the additional products available along with basic
food crops grown for the marketplace.
Anthropologists, following nutritionists, have collected and analyzed deter
minants of food intake, dietary data, and nutrition by several methods ( 1 64) .
A n analytic tool which has received some attention, particularly among those
studying rural diets in Latin America, is "dietary complexity. " "Food diversity
indices" or "dietary complexity scores" are constructed by calculating the
numbers of different food items consumed by individuals or households over a
given period of time. This quantitative measure of qualitative patterns is
supposed to serve as a surrogate measure of nutritional value of the diet, since
those consuming a greater diversity of foods are presumed to be taking in more
and a better mix of nutrients (76, 279).
Dietary complexity has been used as one of several ways to compare diets of
rich and poor both qualitatively and nutritionally in a Mexican community (76),
and might also be used to roughly screen households for malnutrition within a

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poor community if it can first be shown that increasing complexity is an


indicator of both greater variety and also superior nutritional value. The
measure also acts as a fair predictor of infants' and children's nutritional status,
particularly when certain protein factors like milk are weighted (279). Particu
lar aspects of dietary complexity, such as the demand for a minimum level of
variety or for a certain number of "fatty" meal components at different
socioeconomic levels, could also be worked into linear programming models of
dietary construction.
As a related issue, food diversity indices might be of potential utility for
understanding why, in certain cultural contexts, children undereat and suffer
malnutrition in spite of apparently adequate supplies of the staple grain or tuber;
the diet may be too boring as well as too bulky. Conversely, food diversity
indices might be developed as a tool to monitor how availability or variety
influences food choices and therefore levels of consumption of those who
overeat. Particularly as people tum from local to market choices, they are
exposed to extreme amounts and varieties of foods. They need new ways to
control intake since the satiety that accompanies habitual exposure to a monoto
nous diet is absent (223). Analysis of factors such as novelty, satiety , and
complexity can also contribute to studies of food acceptance and preference as
well as nutritional adequacy.
Alternatively , dietary selections have been studied as "nutritional
strategies ," a concept developed by DeWalt (75, 75a) in several field studies in
the Valley of Mexico. Not stopping at a measure of dietary complexity and a
problematic set of relationships between income and nutrition, she studied the
different routes by which food entered households-(a) home production , (b)
purchase, (c) gathering , and (d) gifts-and the complex ways increased income
from different socioeconomic pursuits affected each. Relying on (problematic)
measures of material standard of living and estimated income to stratify her
sample, she used weekly cycles of food use, collected by weekly food "market
basket" estimates and food intake estimates supplied through 24-hour recall, to
calculate the relationships between economic standing and food use and income
levels and dietary adequacy. She concluded that the simple linear correlations
that she and colleagues had used previously to demonstrate the relationships
between food use and economic standing were inadequate, since they did not
take into account the various noncommercial routes by which food reaches
households, which furthermore affected income available to buy high quality
foods. Such linear methods failed to reveal that middle income families who
appeared to have an economic advantage and were buying more diverse diets
were no better off nutritionally than those immediately below them in income
with lower food complexity scores.
Simply put, whether families and individuals are nutritionally better off
when they diversify their diets through cash purchases depends on the extent to

236

MESSER

which the purchased foods that repl ac e the ho rne produced items are adequate
nutritional substitutes. If cash cropping (or other programs for income genera
tion) move people off what was an adequate diet from subsistence crops and
activities toward more expensive foods or foods higher on the food chain,
nutrition may su ffer (75 ) . Such substitutions rarely result in nutritional im
provement. Her contrast of diets of families who have adopted cash cropping
versus those who retain adequate subsistence production shows no i m prove
ment (75). Thus, the tradeoff between cash and adequate diet remains prob
lematic and suggests that other cultural factors in dietary selection and food
distribution are operating which must be studied. In su m m ary , such studies
point to some of the problems of try ing to improve nutrition through direct or
indirect economic development schemes, which, whether aimed at foraging,
horticultural , or agricultural populations, usually destroy t he initial subsistence
base, and often result in inad equate c ash and n utrition al c h o i c es.
In other settings , cash crops like coffee also upset traditional nutrition
patterns in the short run by forcing people to buy food , and in the long run , by
transforming the sexual division of labor, control over (cash) resources , or both
(308) , and potentially, trade and ideological relationships between and within
groups (1 05 ) .
Additional areas o f concern i n economic development are the dietary
nutritional impact of women's work, i ncludi ng how women ' s employment
time and income affect domestic and child care arrangements (and therefore
children ' s health ) , overall food availability , and intrahousehold distribution of
food ( 1 85 a , 265 ) . S imple correlations between the nutritional status of children
whose mothers work or do not work have been used to argue that children may
be worse off when their mothers are employed although such claims are
usually not supported by careful data sets which stratify the sample according to
women 's income, men 's income, and total household income (265) . It may be
that households where women work are still better off than they would be
without the woman' s income, since women ' s income, in contrast to men ' s , has
usually been shown to go directly into food and other necessities for the
children (3 1 5a) , although the sociocultural dynamics of dietary choices and
adverse effects on childcare have not been scrupulously reported.
Different patterns of cash employment also affect intrahousehold distribu
tion of food more generally. Gross & Underwood' s ( 1 40) study of energy flow
among sisal workers showed that male wage earners received preference in the
allocation of calories. They were fed first , in sufficient quantity to sustain their
work , often at the expense of children and women, who received inadequate
calories if total household food supply was insufficient for all . It has also been
suggested for other cultures that males of all ages receive priority over females
in food allocations, although this "truism" for countries like India and B ang
ladesh has been questioned and qualified by more intensive research of dietary

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PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

237

intakes and nutritional status at the household level. B irth order, numbers of
children, and the economic status of the household, in addition to "food
ideology" seem to affect whether such rules are followed (276), and therefore,
the nutritional impact of such food beliefs.

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PERSPECTIVES FOR THE FUTURE AND CONCLUSIONS


This review has indicated that the specialized anthropological studies of food
begun in the 1 930s (60, 6 1 , 273) continue to provide concepts , categories, and
in certain cases methods of data collection for contemporary investigations of
the relationships between diet and culture. Anthropologists are still called upon
to discuss, advise, and in certain cases suggest solutions to nutritional prob
lems, but now, as then (237), their reports seem to have had limited impact on
food policies. Additional agronomic and nutritional topics which anthropolog
ists might consider exploring in the area of food policy are: (a) the "sociology of
knowledge" within groups of scientists and bureaucrats governing agronomic
and nutritional policy (e. g . the ethnobotanical , food, and nutritional classifica
tions of plant geneticists contributing new plant varieties or industrialized
foods , and of economists and nutritionists designing policies to favor selected
"minimum" diets to meet recommended nutritional standards); (b) the
sociocultural , political, and economic motives behind different and changing
country and world nutritional standards (229a); and (c) the effects of different
types of food and economic policies on dietary selections, intrahousehold
distribution of resources , and nutrition. In particular, more thorough investiga
tions of the social organization of household tasks are needed to show how
households and individuals react to economic development programs . Such
investigations could provide a. data base on time allocation (23 1 a) and house
hold budgets ( 1 1 0 , 1 43) which would help sort out some of the "problems" in
the correlation between income, food expenditures , health, and nutrition.
Results could also be combined with physical anthropological studies of energy
expenditure to increase our understanding of how those beyond the socioecono
mic stage of foraging manage time and energy under variable resource condi
tions.
Current research on many of these topics also suggest that anthropologists'
concerns with intrahousehold resource use, and differences in how individuals
and households within the same community organize potential food resources,
may also provide important guides to understanding how food "cultures" and
"economies" change. Methods to study how individuals and households within
the same community with supposedly the "same" culture and economy manage
resources are being proposed and tried (75a, 23 1 a, 252 , 252a, 276) in various
nutrition studies . In addition, studies of dietary and nutritional patterns ( 1 33 )
are expanding the dimensions o f time and space within which dietary intakes

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238

MESSER

are recorded. They suggest also how important It IS to assess nutritional


adequacy of intake as well as activity patterns over periods longer than 24
hours, and may potentially contribute data to the larger scientific debate
currently proceeding on nutritional standards (229a). All form part of a more
general development of methods to study individual biological and cultural
variability within populations, as an initial step to conceiving processes and
mechanisms of biocultural evolution.
Within anthropological theory, the major "problems" of diet that will prob-.
ably continue to be debated are: (a) the dimensions and feedback mechanisms
in the biocultural evolution (or co-evolution) of diet, and (b) the economic/
ecological vs cultural/symbolic determinants of diet and nutritional well-being.
Anthropologists continue to struggle with the formation of evolutionary para
digms that from the biological perspective (a) will indicate that particular food
customs under analysis provide a selective advantage to the populations using
them, and (b) will identify the physiological mechanism by which this im
proved fitness occurs, while from the cultural perspective, (c) ascertaining if
the groups with possibly "adaptive" food customs recognized such selective
advantages as improvements to health or decreases in morbidity or (d) by
default developed the customs which seem to have improved reproductive
fitness out of some other sensory perceptions (see 14 and other comments on
Ref. 240). More careful control of biological, historical, and cultural symbolic
data for specific cases needs to be obtained before anthropologists, even with
improving methodologies and collaborations in their many SUbdisciplines and
subfields, can be said to have an effective "theory" of dietary change or
biocultural evolution . Similarly, it remains to trace the cultural and nutritional
implications of specific sets of food beliefs and diets in changing sociocultural
and ecological-economic environments before one can pursue seriously
biocultural factors in "adaptation. " The key sociocultural and biological ques
tions of how individuals within "cultures" undergoing "delocalization" in diet
choose foods, how they perceive the health consequences of such choices, and
the health implications of different diets from the biomedical perspective
should lead to a more careful evaluation of "feedback" mechanisms between
culture and biology in human and dietary evolution. Studies are needed on
native understandings of the etiologies of the dietary (in certain instances
combined with life style) "diseases of civilization" such as obesity, hyperten
sion, and diabetes; in the latter instances, the possible linkages between tastes,
types of foods which carry those flavors, and resulting symptomology are only
beginning to be explored. They suggest a potentially important collaboration
between biomedical and socioculturally oriented anthropologists, as well as
those interested in practical as well as theoretical questions of diet, health, and
human evolution. In conclusion, the need to explore further the causal
functional versus semiotic bases of cultural diet and their relative "fit" at one

PERSPECTIVES ON DIET

239

point in time and over time continues, as changing nutritional and activity
patterns either threaten or improve health prospects, and either undermine or
reinforce the cultural symbolic and social functional values of local diets.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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This paper was prepared while the author was a Fellow at the Center for
Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California. I am grateful
for financial support provided by NSF BNS 76-22943 . I thank W . Durham and
B . Orlove for their comments on earlier drafts of this material.

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