What Is Food Culture And What Does It Have To Do With Our Health?
Food is the great unifier that connects us across cultures and generations. It can quite literally propel you to another time, another country, another culture without even leaving your dinner table.
As a dual-Italian American citizen, my family’s food culture was something that nourished not only my body but my soul. It was a part of how I connected with my grandparents, it was the lens through which I learned about the environment and where food came from, it was how I bonded with my mom and sisters as I learned how to make homemade marinara sauce from the tomatoes my dad grew in our garden. My food culture was as much a part of my me as I was a part of my food culture.
definition of food culture
Food culture (by definition) refers to the practices, attitudes, and beliefs as well as the networks and institutions surrounding the production, distribution, and consumption of food.
That’s a mouth full so let’s break it down — food culture is the connection, beliefs, and experience we have with food and our food system. It incorporates our cultural heritage and ethnicity, but is not limited to it.
what do the most well known food cultures have in common?
The most well known food cultures of the world (Italian, French, Chinese, Mexican) are defined by the way in which they showcase distinct flavors and ingredients that were often forced into their food culture due to the needs of the land in which they were grown. These food cultures did not develop globally, they developed regionally. They also value community and pleasure, which are two highly overlooked qualities in the American interpretation of food culture.
We were meant to enjoy our food (it is why we experience pleasure when we eat it), and we were meant to enjoy our food with friends and family. Food cultures were founded on the way in which food was used to celebrate religious holidays, community events, and family gatherings. In other words food was celebrated and respected as an essential part of what makes humans human.
what are the components of a strong food culture?
To break it down even further food cultures, no matter where in the world, all encompass a few key components:
They involve sharing food with community and family
They value the needs of the land over the convenience driven desires of people
They use food to celebrate religious and community events
They focus on local and seasonal ingredients, and use them to create unique and distinguishable flavors
They value their food experiences and then move on with their day
Food is not something to be manipulated, it is meant to be shared and celebrated
how does food culture impact health?
But what does food culture have to do with ones health? Well — everything.
Without a strong food culture food becomes something that we manipulate for personal gain. It stops being something that we respect, and instead becomes something that we aim to control, and the more we aim to control our food the less we truly value and experience it.
For so many Americans the phrase food culture doesn’t mean much. Food is something that comes packaged, that is counted and manipulated, and overall disconnected from any real meaning. At some point we decided to remove the culture from our food and our health began to suffer.
All you have to do is take a look at the blue zones of the world (the areas of the world researched to have the happiest and longest lifespans) to understand that our food culture is as much a part of our personal and societal well-being, as our food is itself.
The good news is that every single person is capable of creating a strong food culture for themselves, and their family. You don’t need to grow up in an environment with a strong food heritage in order to incorporate some of the building blocks that make up a strong and unwavering food culture.
And to answer a common question that I usually receive when discussing food culture — no you do not need to identify with one particular country or food heritage in order to develop a strong food culture. Your food culture can be anything you want it to be, and can incorporate many ethnic flavors, dishes, and traditions so long as your food culture is based in the values I detailed above.
There are no rules when it comes to developing a strong food culture. Some people may have grown up with one, while others develop one later in life. Regardless, the most important thing to me is that more people (especially here in the USA) start to change the way they view their food, and more importantly the way in which they experience and value it.