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World Food Habits Library  - (by Dirks. Robert   Prof. emer.(Anthropologists) Illinois State University )<br&nbsp;<></br&nbsp;<>

Taboos and Avoidances

Gluttony -- "The characters feel the prohibition placed on their hands to touch the food. The dish is there but they can't -- they shouldn't. Their expression suggests compassion, they invite our participation by asking for our help" (© Daniel Rivas) 

Aunger R. 1994. Are Food Avoidances Maladaptive in the Ituri Forest of Zaire? Journal of Anthropological Research 50:277-310. [proscriptions; Africa]
Aunger R. 1994. Sources of Variation in Ethnographic Interview Data: Food Avoidances in the Ituri Forest. Ethnology 33(1):65-99. [food proscriptions; Africa; Zaire]


Beer M. 2010. Taste or Taboo: Dietary Choices in Antiquity. Prospect Books. [history; social identity; proscriptions; Europe; Greece; Rome]


Boehrer M. 2004. The Parrot Eaters: Psittacophagy in the Renaissance and Beyond. Gastronomica 4(3):46-59. [foodstuffs; history; taboo; cannibalism]


Campbell H, Murcott A, MacKenzie A. 2011. Kosher in New York City, Halal in Aquitaine: Challenging the Relationship between Neoliberalism and Food Auditing. Agriculture and Human Values 28(1):67-79. [food audit; religious prescriptions, proscriptions; North America; New York City; Jews; Europe; France; Maghrebi]


Chaudry MM. 1992. Islamic Food Laws: Philosophical Basis and Practical Implications. Food Technology 46:92-104. [foodways; religious prescriptions, proscriptions]


Fabre-Vassas C. 1997. The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig. Columbia University Press. [history; foodstuffs; pork; taboo; social relations; religion; ritual]


Fomine FLM. 2009. Food Taboos in Precolonial and Contemporary Cameroon. Gastronomica 9(4):43-52. [food proscriptions; Africa]


Gittelsohn J, Vastine AE. 2003. Sociocultural and Household Factors Impacting on the Selection, Allocation and Consumption of Animal Source Foods: Current Knowledge and Application. Journal of Nutrition 133(11):4036S-4041S. [food choice; proscriptions; meat eating; mother & child nutrition]


Hamilton M. 2006. Eating Death: Vegetarians, Meat and Violence. Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research 9:155-177. [meat eating; taboo; ideology]


Harris M. 1998. Good to Eat. Waveland. [materialist theory; taboos; ecology; food system; meat eating; cannibalism]


Mabilia M. 2000. The Cultural Context of Childhood Diarrhea among Gogo Infants. Anthropology & Medicine 7:191-208. [breastfeeding; disease; beliefs; taboos; Africa; Tanzania; Wagogo]


MacClancy J, ed. 2007. Consuming the Inedible: Neglected Dimensions of Food Choice. Berghahn Books. [collected essays; eating disorders; taboos; geophagy; pica; cannibalism; excretion]


Milton K. 1991. Comparative Aspects of Diet in Amazonian Forest-Dwellers. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B 334:253-263. [diet; food taboos; South American Indians; Amazonia]


Milton K. 1997. Real Men Don't Eat Deer. Discover 18:46-59. [taboos]


Rozin P, Markwith M, Stoess C. 1997. Moralization and Becoming a Vegetarian: The Transformation of Preferences into Values and the Recruitment of Disgust. Psychological Science 8:67-73. [vegetarian; preference; taboo]


Simoons F. 1995. Eat Not of This Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to the Present. Second edition. University of Wisconsin Press. [taboo]


Whitehead H. 2000. Food Rules: Hunting, Sharing, and Tabooing Game in Papua New Guinea. University of Michigan Press. [social relations; sharing; gender; taboo; Oceania; Papua New Guinea; Seltaman]


see Taboo Archive for items published before 1990




Diener P. 1978. The Dialectics of the Sacred Cow: Ecological Adaptation Versus Political Appropriation in the Origins of India's Cattle Complex. Dialectical Anthropology 3(3):221-242. [taboo; sacred cow; politics; South Asia; India]


Dwyer JT. 1974. The New Vegetarians: Group Affiliation and Dietary Strictures Related to Attitudes and Life Style". Journal of the American Dietetic Association 64:376-382. [social relations; vegetarian; taboo; North America; United States]


Dwyer JT. 1974. The New Vegetarians: The Natural High? Journal of the American Dietetic Association 65:529-536. [social relations; vegetarian; taboo; North America; United States]


Ferro-Luzzi G. 1975. Food Avoidances of Indian Tribes. Anthropos 70:385-428. [taboo; South Asia; India]


Ferro-Luzzi G. 1980. Food Avoidances at Puberty and Menstruation in Tamilnad. In Food, Ecology and Culture. JRK Robson, ed. pp. 93-100. Gordon and Breach. [taboo; life cycle; women; South Asia; India; Tamilnad] -  G. Eichinger Ferro‐Luzzi: Food avoidances at puberty and menstruation in Tamilnad - An anthropological study Ecology of Food and Nutrition 2(3) 165-172 (1973) DOI:10.1080/03670244.1973.9990333

One thousand and two hundred women of 54 castes and 55 tribal women in Tamilnad (South India) were interviewed during a period of six months on food avoidances during puberty and subsequent menstruation.

Avoidances referred to different types of food, but the most significant were those of animal origin. This practice could be explained by the concept of purity and pollution. Even non‐vegetarians held animal foods to be impure and, as women during menstruation are considered impure also, they should abstain from consuming them to prevent the pollution increasing.

Eggs, though coming under the impure category, were nevertheless eaten at puberty, because of their reputed “strengthening” effect on the girl's body for future pregnancies.

Avoidances during ordinary menstruation were much rarer than at puberty indicating a decreased concern with habituation.



Ferro-Luzzi G. 1980. Food Avoidances During the Pueriperium and Lactation in Tamilnad. In Food, Ecology and Culture. JRK Robson, ed. pp. 109-117. Gordon and Breach. [taboo; life cycle; women; South Asia; India]


Harper E. 1964. Ritual Pollution as an Integrator of Caste and Religion. In Religion in South Asia. E Harper, ed. [social relations; caste; exchange; pollution; taboo; South Asia; India]


Harris M. 1966. The Cultural Ecology of India's Sacred Cattle. Current Anthropology 7:51-60. [taboo; beef eating; ecology; South Asia; India]


Harris M. 1985. The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig: Riddles of Food and Culture. Simon and Schuster. [taboos; materialist theory; ecology; cannibalism; meat eating]


Laderman C. 1981. Symbolic and Empirical Reality: A New Approach to the Analysis of Food Avoidances. American Ethnologist 8:468-493. [food avoidances; symbolic meaning]


Manderson L, Mathews M. 1981. Vietnamese Behavioral and Dietary Precautions During Pregnancy. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 11:1-8. [food choice; avoidances; pregnancy; childbirth; Southeast Asia; Vietnam]


McDonald D. 1977. Food Taboos: A Primitive Environmental Protection Agency. Anthropos 72:734-748. [taboo; ecology]


Nair KN. 1987. Animal Protein Consumption and the Sacred Cow Complex in India. In Food and Evolution. M Harris, E Ross, eds. Temple University Press. [taboo; sacred cow; protein intake; South Asia; India]


Odebiyi A. 1989. Food Taboos in Maternal and Child Health: The Views of Traditional Healers in Ile-Ife Nigeria. Social Science and Medicine 28:985-996. [taboos; child health; Africa; Nigeria]


O'Laughlin B. 1974. Mediation of Contradiction: Why Mbum Women Do Not Eat Chicken. In Women, Culture, and Society. M Rosaldo, L Lamphere, eds. [taboo; symbolism; women; Africa; Mbum]


Paque C. 1984. Infant Salt Taboos in Morocco. Current Anthropology 25:237-238. [infant feeding; food taboo; Africa; Morocco]


Pool R. 1986. Beliefs Concerning the Avoidance of Food During Pregnancy and the Immediate Post Partum Period in a Tribal Area of Rural Gujarat. Eastern Anthropologist 39(3):251-259. [food avoidance; symbol and meaning; South Asia; India; Gujarat]


Reichel-Dolmatoff G. 1979. Desana Animal Categories, Food Restrictions and the Concept of Color Energies. Journal of Latin American Folklore 4:243-291. [categories; taboo; symbolic meaning; South America; Columbia; Desana]


Ross E. 1978. Food Taboos in Amazon Cultural Ecology. Current Anthropology 19(1):1-36. [taboo; ecology; South American Indian; Amazonia]


Rozin P. 1987. Psychobiology Perspectives on Food Preferences and Avoidances. In Food and Evolution. M Harris, E Ross, eds. Temple University Press. [preference; avoidance; psychology]


Rozin P, Fallon AE. 1980. The Psychological Categorization of Foods and Non-Foods: A Preliminary Taxonomy of Food Rejections. Appetite 1:193-201-. [psychological categories; taste and preference; food avoidance]


Sahlins M. 1978. Culture as Protein and Profit. The New York Review of Books 25(18):45-53-. [taboo; symbolism; prehistory; cannibalism; Mexico; Aztec] 

Sakr AH. 1971. Dietary Regulations and Food Habits of Muslims. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 58:123-126. [food prescriptions, proscriptions; religion; Islam]
Simoons; Frederick J.: The sacred cow and the constitution of India. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 2 (4) 282-295 (1973) - (scan im Archiv) DOI:10.1080/03670244.1973.9990349
The sacred cow concept of Hindu India has many interesting and important socio‐cultural and ecological manifestations. This article focuses on one of these: the ban on cow slaughter included in the Constitution of India, and the legal controversy that followed efforts to implement the ban. The conclusion is reached that to understand the problem one should not focus narrowly on the unquestioned economic utility of cattle in Indian life, that one must also consider religious belief as a force that in some respects has a detrimental impact on the ecology of food and nutrition. (s. auch link)
Simoons F. 1974. Rejection of Fish as Human Food in Africa: A Problem in History and Ecology. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 3:89-105. [food taboo; fish; Africa]
Simoons F. 1978. Traditonal Use and Avoidance of Foods of Animal Origin: A Culture-Historical View. Bioscience 28:178-184. [taboo; meat]
Simoons; F.J.: Eat Not This Flesh. Food Avoidances from Prehistory to the Present Wisconsin Press, Madison 1994 (2. Aufl.), ISBN 0-299-14254-X;
Spielmann K. 1989. A Review: Dietary Restrictions on Hunter-Gatherer Women and the Implications for Fertility and Infant Mortality. Human Ecology 17:321-345. [food avoidances; taboos; maternal nutrition; infant nutrition]  Tambiah SJ. 1969. Animals Are Good to Think and Good to Prohibit. Ethnology 5:423-459. [food taboos; meat eating]


Taylor D. 1950. The Meaning of Dietary and Occupational Restrictions among the Island Carib. American Anthropologist 52:243-249. [taboo; couvade; Caribbean; Island Carib]


Trant H. 1954. Food Taboos in East Africa. Lancet 8:703-705. [food taboos; East Africa]


Visser M. 1987. Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal. Grove Press. [Europe; england; taboos and avoidances; history; mythology; dinning]


Wilson C. 1973. Food Taboos of Childbirth: The Malay Example. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 2:267-274. [taboo; childbrith; Southeast Asia; Malaysia; Malay]  (scan im Archiv) - Tradition and folk beliefs created a highly structured set of rituals obligatory for 40 days for the Malay woman who gave birth. During confinement great care was taken that harmful materials, especially “cold” foods such as fruits and vegetables, and “toxic” fish, did not enter the body. Permitted foods and behaviour were designed to keep the body “hot” and prevent “toxicity” in the suckling. Fifty women selected randomly in a Malay fishing village were studied by participant observation. They reported that a varied normal diet continued through pregnancy but it altered abruptly at childbirth because of dietary restrictions. Observation of all foods consumed for a full day during the lying‐in of two women indicated that the food taboos of the puerperium lowered intakes of essential nutrients.


"Taboos." Encyclopedia of Food & Culture. Ed. Solomon H. Katz. Vol. 3. Gale Cengage, 2003. 28 Nov, 2012 <>



TABOOS. A food taboo is a prohibition against consuming certain foods. The word "taboo" (also spelled "tabu") is Polynesian and means 'sacred' or 'forbidden'; it has a quasi-magical or religious overtone. The term was introduced in the anthropological literature in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the field of food and nutrition, food taboos are not necessarily connected with magical-religious practices, and some nutritionists prefer to speak of "food avoidance." In this article these terms are used interchangeably.


Food is a culturally specific concept. In general, anything can function as food if it is not immediately toxic. But what is edible in one culture may not be in another. The concept of food is determined by three factors: biology, geography, and culture. Certain plants and animals are not consumed because they are indigestible. Geography also plays a role. For example, dairy products are not part of the food culture of the humid tropical regions since the geographical conditions for keeping cattle are unfavorable. Milk is often a taboo food in such cultures. Insects are not considered food in Europe and most of the United States despite attempts to introduce them in the late twentieth century. This is because there are few edible insects in regions with temperate climates. In Mexico, by contrast, insects are packaged in plastic sachets, cans, or jars for sale. Cultural reasons for food taboos often have a geographical basisnknown or exotic foods will be rejected as unfit for consumption.


It is of interest to note that food avoidance most frequently relates to animal meat, since in most cultures human beings have an emotional relationship with animals they have to kill to eat. One of the few taboos of a food of vegetable origin is the prohibition against alcohol for Muslims and some Christian denominations.


Food may establish a cultural identity of an ethnic group, religion, or nation. Food taboos in a society function also as a means to show differences between various groups and strengthen their cultural identity. Refraining from eating pork is not only a question of religious identity but is likewise an indication of whether or not one belongs to the Jewish or Muslim cultural community. In order to better understand the range of food taboos, it is useful to distinguish between permanent and temporary food taboos or food avoidances.

Permanent Food Taboos


Foods that are permanent taboos or avoidances are always prohibited for a specific group. The classic example of a permanent food taboo is the prohibition against pork by Jews and Muslims. The Jewish prohibition against pork is found in Leviticus 11:1. Some anthropologists point out that food taboos are based on the failure of these foods to fit into the usual systems of classification. Foods that do not fit into these classifications are unsuitable for consumption, or unclean. According to the Qurʾan (2, 168), Muslims should not only avoid pork, but also blood, non-ritually slaughtered animals, and cadavers and alcohol. In the case of both Jewish and Muslim food taboos, the foods themselves are considered unclean. A different concept of food avoidance is found in Hinduism. Hindus abstain from eating beef because cows are considered sacred. Various arguments have been used to explain the origins of such food taboos or food avoidance including religion, culture, and hygiene.


Marvin Harris has rightly pointed out that when people reject certain foods, there must be a logical and economical reason for doing so. The pig is an animal of sedentary farmers and unfit for a pastoral way of life because pigs cannot be herded over long distances without suffering a high rate of mortality. Herdsmen generally despise the lifestyle of sedentary farming communities.


In Western society cats and dogs are not consumed because of the emotional relationships developed with these pets. Increasingly pets are being "humanized" in such a way that eating them is seen as an act of anthropophagy or cannibalism. The feeling of closeness to certain animals can also be found in the savannah regions of West Africa. Certain West African clans consider dogs clan animals, based on the fact that they have been beneficial to the clan in the past; as clan animals they are unfit for consumption. Hippocrates (46077 B.C.E.) regarded dog meat favorably as a light meal, but in later antiquity, dogs were considered unclean and unfit to eat. This is still the case in the Mediterranean area and the Middle East. By contrast, dog meat is popular in China and the mountainous regions of the Philippines. From a nutritional point of view, dog meat is an excellent source of animal protein, and dogs do not require the grazing area demanded by cattle or other large ruminants.

Temporary Food Taboos or Avoidances


Some foods are avoided for certain periods of time. These restrictions often apply to women and relate to the reproduction cycle.


The times of temporary food avoidances related to particular periods of the life cycle include:







Periods of illness or sickness


From a nutritional point of view, temporary food avoidances are of great importance as they concern vulnerable groups: pregnant women, breast-feeding women, and infants and children during the period of weaning and growth. Food regulations and avoidances during these periods often deprive the individual of nutritionally valuable foods such as meat, fish, eggs, or vegetables. In a number of African countries pregnant women avoid green vegetables. They also do not consume fish. When asked why, women say the unborn child might develop a head shaped like that of a fish. Some of these avoidances may seem odd from a scientific point of view, but there is often an unnoticed logic behind it. In the first place, women are aware of the critical period and know that much has to be done to ensure the successful delivery of a healthy child. Observing the rules of avoidance will give her the strength of knowing that everything possible has been done for the benefit of the child.


In Central Africa nutritionists observed that young children did not eat eggs. They were worried that a nutritious food was not available for this vulnerable group. The village elders gave a convincing explanation of why eggs should be avoided by children. In the past the wise ancestors were much concerned about young children roaming around the villages searching for eggs and even chasing the brood hens away from their eggs. In order to avoid a depletion of the poultry stock, the elderly decided that eggs were harmful to young children and should be avoided.


A different form of temporary food avoidances involves the rules of fasting. In medieval Christianity the most important period of fasting was Lent (the period from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday), during which meat and animal products were forbidden. There were also other days (Ember Days, Fridays, etc.) on which people were required to abstain from eating meat. The Reformation broke the tradition of fasting to a large extent. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a wide and complicated system of dietary rules and fasting, as does the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the Muslim world, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, means strict fasting, even from beverages, from sunrise to sunset (Sakr).

Do Food Taboos Change and Disappear?


Food taboos may seem rather stable, but they are often under pressure because the society is changing. Migration is a powerful factor in the process of changing food culture. In Europe and North America, most Muslim migrants from the Middle East and South Asia try to maintain their food habits, but some cannot fully resist the food culture of their new home country. A substantial number of Muslims begin drinking beer, wine, and even stronger spirits. Women tend to be less inclined to give up the avoidance of alcohol. The fear of pollution from pork often remains strong, however. In some European countries Muslims refrain from eating in factory canteens out of fear that meals may be polluted with pork fat or pork meat. In contrast, many Jewish Europeans and Americans eat pork from time to time, or even on a regular basis.


Nutrition and health education have reduced the temporary food avoidances of the vulnerable groups in a great number of countries. In the humid tropical countries of Africa and Asia, where the raising of dairy animals is unfavorable, the rejection of milk as a food is diminishing. Despite the occurrence of lactose intolerance among the population, the use of milk and milk products has extended since colonial times. Primary lactose intolerance occurs from an apparent decrease in the intestinal enzyme lactase and can occur between the ages of two and five years. This condition is present in about 75 percent of the world population. However, small but significant quantities of milk consumed throughout the day can be tolerated among ethnic groups known to be lactose intolerant. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, milk products and a little fresh milk are available for the upper and middle classes. This availability seems to have increased due to dairy exports from Western countries and dairy food aid during the 1950s through the 1970s. In a country without a dairy tradition such as Indonesia, the importation of canned sweetened condensed milk can be traced back to around 1883. In the high lands of Java, the Dutch introduced dairy farming on a small scale in the nineteenth century. From the colonists, a modest use of milk spread gradually among the emerging Indonesian upper and middle classes.


In the United States and other countries with Anglo-Saxon traditions, horsemeat is not part of the food culture. This is in contrast to continental Europe, in particular France, where horsemeat is a well-known and appreciated food. The history of horsemeat gives insight into how attitudes toward food avoidance change over the course of time. In Europe it started with a decree by Pope Gregory III (d. 714) that the Christian communities of Germany and the Low Countries refrain from eating horsemeat because the horse played an important role in pagan rituals. The purpose of the decree was that the Christian community should distinguish itself from the pagans by avoiding a typical pagan symbol, horsemeat. Gradually the consumption of horseflesh disappeared. The meat was considered to be unfit for consumption. In the nineteenth century the attitude toward horsemeat changed dramatically. Food emergencies connected with war and promotion of horsemeat as a food were the driving forces for change. During the Napoleonic Wars, hungry soldiers were forced to eat their horses. To their surprise, the meat was fit to eat and even had a reasonably good taste. French pharmacists promoted the idea that horsemeat was suitable for consumption, and from a scientific point of view no threat at all to health. Discarded workhorses became a source of good and cheap meat for the growing working classes in urban France. The concept of horsemeat as food spread to other European countries, but not to the United Kingdom, where the horse remained a noble animal, and the idea of eating horsemeat was viewed with disgust.


In periods of emergency, dietary rules including food avoidances can be temporarily ended. The West African Fulani pastoralists avoid the consumption of fish. During the dry season the herdsmen have to move with their cattle from the northern savannahs to the land along the Niger River in the south. Because of the seasonal food shortage, herdsmen are more or less forced to turn to eating fish. In rural areas with a dry and a rainy season, people will collect in the period of seasonal food shortage the so-called hungry foods. Hungry foods are mainly wild foods, often not very attractive and tasty and as such normally avoided. They are consumed only in an emergency.


See also Africa; Anthropology and Food; Christianity; Fasting and Abstinence; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Hippocrates; Hinduism; Islam; Judaism; Lent; Middle Ages, European; Ramadan; Religion and Food; Shrove Tuesday.



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Adel P. den Hartog


Source: Encyclopedia of Food & Culture, ©2003 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved. Full copyright.