Food? Cultural Perspectives

People around the world have a number of “strange” cultural practices. While – to the common eye – these practices are perceived as “strange”, anthropologists approach them with an “unbiased eye,” which helps them gain an appreciation for diversity rather than impose their own cultural beliefs on the people they study. This unique tool called cultural relativism emerged early in the history of anthropology with Franz Boas and his students.

Cultural relativism, as a research tools, argues that for the sake of understanding, people studying societies that are different from their own should not judge the behaviour or culture of the people they are studying. This, however, does not mean that once the research is complete anthropologists cannot comment on potentially harmful cultural practices, though. In contrast to cultural relativism, ethical relativism, which is a moral theory in philosophy, argues that one can never comment on the cultural practices of another society. There has been much confusion as a result to appreciate the difference between the two perspectives.

Unfortunately, the sciences are fraught with biased perspectives. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual pf Mental Disorders (DSM) for psychology, for instance, defines geophagy as an abnormal carving for dirt; yet, many animals have been known to consume dirt. While there are potential health risks if one consumes contaminated soil (feces, helminth eggs, lead, or tetanus, for example), clay minerals have been known to provide microbial and detoxifying benefits. Furthermore, from an evolutionary perspective, because humans cannot naturally synthesize vitamin B12, geophagy may have offered its consumers an adaptive advantage.

In fact, the benefits of dirt – or clay – eating are well documented despite what the DSM has to say about the practice. For example, Starks and Slabach (2012, np) report

in the age of modern medicine, pharmaceutical companies harnessed the binding properties of kaolin, a clay mineral, to produce Kaopectate, a drug that treats diarrhea and other digestive issues. Eventually the synthetic chemical bismuth subsalicylate—also the key ingredient in Pepto-Bismol—replaced kaolin, but the clay is still used today in other ways. Kaolin and smectite bind not only harmful toxins but also pathogens.

While Starks and Slabach report on dirt in “the age of modern medicine,” and we know that the digestive benefits of dirt have been long recognized by traditional cultures, the age of modern cuisine has taken dirt to an entirely different level.

Dirt isn’t the only thing that people have eaten throughout the history of humankind: our great ancestors ate bugs! Don’t be surprised – many people around the world today eat bugs.

“Gross”, a student exclaims.

Wait, is that type of thinking jibe with cultural relativism? Nope. Not at all, so let’s try again.

Dirt isn’t the only thing that people have eaten throughout the history of humankind: our great ancestors ate bugs! Don’t be surprised – many people around the world today eat bugs.

“Wow. That’s interesting. Why do they eat bugs?” a student asks.

Great question. We know that our early ancestors  – think back to those australopithecines we discussed – had behavioural patterns that were probably a lot like other great apes. Chimpanzees and gorillas, for example, eat termites and ants because they provide them with the much needed proteins that are absence from their fruit and vegetation based diets. Remember, proteins are a necessary building block of life and while we eventually opted for hunting and cooking larger animals, insects remained on the menu for many people around the world.

Insect eating has become a fad in a few areas around the world. The following video will give you some insight into the ways in which entomophagy is being marketed:

Many people argue that shifting the West’s perceptions regarding the edibility of insects may a highly sustainable endeavor. What are your thoughts?


Are insects the food of the future? TEDxManhattan. Youtube.

Eating Insects. national Geographic. Youtube.

Would you eat dirt. Geobeats. Youtube.

Starks, P.T.B., & Slabach, B.L. (2012). Would you like a side of dirt with that? Scientific American.


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