What are the food taboos in Europe

Food taboos - why we don't eat everything we can

As omnivores, humans are basically able to eat and digest almost anything. Nevertheless, there are a large number of food taboos in different cultures or social groups - these are binding, mostly informal and internalized regulations not to eat certain animals, plants or mushrooms. The BESSERwisser research how food taboos are explained in the social and cultural science literature.

There is no food taboo that has absolute and universal validity. Often food taboos are even difficult for outsiders to understand and respect. This indicates that these are not physiologically anchored, but culturally and socially acquired and learned. Food taboos primarily concern meat, although plants, such as the bean in ancient Greece, were also subject to a food taboo. Religious food taboos, such as the prohibition of eating and slaughtering cattle in Hinduism, appear particularly strict. But if we look at the deep rejection in our part of the world to consume dog and cat meat, it becomes clear that this does not have to be religiously motivated.

But how can you explain food taboos? How do they come about and why? A look at the classic theories for explaining food taboos shows that the explanatory approaches are quite variable depending on the theoretical structure and disciplinary background.

Refusal of food for practical reasons

The rationalistic or cultural materialistic model [1] assumes that food taboos are first and foremost based on material causes. This is based on the assumption that individuals / societies use (limited) food resources rationally and as efficiently as possible and thus optimally adapt to the given environmental conditions. Thus, those foods that are preferred also have a better cost-benefit balance. The Jewish taboo on pork, for example, is explained by the fact that the development of agriculture has made pigs a food competitor for humans because they have to be fed on grain in the stable. It does not produce any by-products like wool and cannot be used as a workhorse. Therefore it was considered too expensive for rational and economic reasons and became taboo over time.

Food taboos have a function

Rationalist approaches, however, leave the question unanswered as to why animals that were barely consumed were also banned. The functionalist or layer-theoretical point of view offers an answer [2, 3]. This assumes that the respective nutritional behavior confirms the place of the individual in the social order (society) on a daily basis. Taboos function here as carriers of rules and norms, which also serve to distinguish themselves from “the others” (individuals, groups, societies, etc.). Thus, representatives of this approach are not necessarily interested in the food taboo as such and why a particular food is taboo and not another, but rather its function in the social order and hierarchy. The pork taboo therefore served to establish a collective Jewish identity and thus to distinguish it from other societies or social / religious groups.

Classifying food for social order

Structuralist approaches [4, 5] also want to understand the construction principles of social orders on the basis of food taboos. For them, food taboos are a means of establishing and consolidating an imaginary order in society. For this purpose, classifications such as pure and impure are formed and given certain criteria. Such a categorization is particularly evident in the third book of Moses: Everything that splits the claws and ruminates among the animals, that you should eat ... The rabbits certainly ruminate, but they do not split the claws; therefore they are unclean.And a pig will split its claws, but it will not chew the cud; that's why you should be unclean " (3. Book of Moses 11). In this case, those animals that cannot be assigned or are mixed up will be rejected. Leach (1974) works with other classifications, namely foreign and related. In his perspective, both animals that are too wild and strange (predators) and those that are too close (pets) are not eaten.

Food as a carrier of moral principles

The communication-theoretical approach [6] sees food taboos mainly as an expression of moral norms, the power of which has a strong motivating effect. This explanation of the motivation to act is missing, for example, in structuralist approaches. The moral awareness of a society is shown in culturally deep-seated and at the same time emotionally highly charged eating bans. For Eder, classifications arise on the basis of collective moral ideas. Animals function here as symbols and representatives of what social coexistence should look like. An example of this is the moral problem of killing. If only herbivorous animals such as ruminants are allowed to be eaten, the principle of non-killing is at least symbolically strengthened.

Food taboos are complex

Newer, sociologically oriented directions [7] advocate the formation of empirical theories in order to be able to adequately investigate this phenomenon. In their understanding there is no single right or wrong theory. Answers would have to be derived from the scientific investigation of the respective case and could not be generalized: “It is highly unlikely that phenomena as diverse as the cattle killing ban in India, the rejection of horse meat in Northern Europe, the aversion to dog and cat meat in Europe and North America, and the Mosaic and Islamic pork taboos are all based on the same causal principle. " (105)

It is believed that certain adverse food choices preceded the dietary regulations. These then often served a subsequent intellectual justification, which, however, can take on a momentum of its own. Taboos are therefore not stable and do not follow any logic. They continue to have an effect, are functionalized, i.e. they fulfill a different, new social purpose at a later point in time. Despite their dynamism, once established they are highly stable because they are based on a belief in danger based on deeply rooted beliefs. Any transgressions can then often no longer be assessed rationally because they lie in the world of the unconscious, religious or magical.

In conclusion, it can be said that attempts to explain must always be multidimensional, because taboos are complex and motives are changeable.


[1] Harris, M. (1988). Taste and aversion: the riddle of food taboos. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart.

[2] Pierre Bourdieu, P. (1982). The subtle differences. Critique of Social Judgment. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main.

[3] Mintz, S. W. (1986). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. Penguin, New York.

[4] Douglas, M.P. (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

[5] Leach, E.R. (1974). Culture and communication. On the logic of symbolic relationships. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main.

[6] Eder, K. (1988). The socialization of nature. Studies on the Social Evolution of Practical Reason. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main.

[7] Barlösius, E. (2011). Sociology of Eating: A Social and Cultural Introduction to Nutritional Research. Beltz Juventa. Weinheim, Basel.

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