Food is an integral part of anthropology since it is the basis of human existence. It plays an important role in studying humans and advancing anthropological research. Studying food can reveal so much about societies and culture politically, economically, symbolically, socially, and religiously. Food can also explain patterns in human behavior and identity. Anthropologists can study food by examining food as a commodity, food and social change, food insecurity, rituals involving food, and how identity is defined by food.
Studying food has become in recent times an important way to study societal issues and analyze explanations for human behavior. It has also been a way to study evolution and cultural diffusion across areas of the world and aid in human relations. Food can be a way to unite people and set groups apart.
One way anthropologists study food is by examining single, commodities and substances. They will typically study a key food’s source, domestication, worldwide diffusion, and political importance. For example, commonly studied foods include tomatoes, saffron, bananas, potatoes, salt, maize, rice, and sucrose. They study the globalization of the food and its social implications. Others take more of a broad approach examining the history of the dairy and poultry industries.
Anthropologists also analyze food as a device for social change by exploring the mass production of food, biotechnology, migration, globalization of food, and war. They examine how changes in food lead to culture change or how an outside change effects the diets of people. For example, anthropologists will study how marketing and packaging has led to dietary changes in populations and has changed social values. For example, the organic foods movement was a catalyst for the incorporation of new lifestyles. Furthermore, anthropologists study how migrants, refugees, and colonizers impact dietary change, by tracing the foods they bring. Food is constantly evolving and being transported across the world and plays an important role in forming local identities.
Another interesting aspect of food is the role it plays in religious rituals and belief systems. Food has long been sacred and valued by people as a connection to their faiths and has been used in association with supernatural beings and processes. Studying the symbolic implications of food can cast a light on the social functions of rituals and can aid in understanding religions. For instance, anthropologists have studied Japanese tea ceremonies, Mexican rituals involving sugar for Day of the Dead, and the Andean practices of eating and drinking during religious fiestas in order to understand how people use food as a means of religion. Anthropologists have found that food rituals tend to be vehicles for enforcing hierarchies, access to material goods, divisions of labor, and economic niches.
Food can also be utilized to present identity of ethnicity, race, nationality, class, individuality, and gender. Ethnic cuisine (the food associated with a geographic area) serves as a way to concrete ethnic identity and pride. Ethnic cuisine also plays a role in tourism and cultural awareness.
Overall, food anthropology has grown within the last few decades due to globalization, increase in technology, and growing desires for inclusivity, and it continues to grow as an important aspect of anthropology.