Food culture’s entangled web: understanding the invisible influences on our food habits

What is food culture? How does it impact the way we eat, and in what way does industry use culture to influence our food choices?

Food culture is not merely about what we eat; it is a tapestry woven from the threads of our traditions, practices, and values, shaping our relationship with food and reflecting our cultural identity. But are we on the verge of a culinary revolution, one that demands a collective effort to transform our food habits for a healthier and more sustainable future?

Anant Jani, Senior Researcher in the Heidelberg Institute of Global Health and Senior Member of the NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health at Cambridge University, explains that while food cultures have too often been used to hinder attempts to transform systems, they can instead be a significant facilitator to healthier and more sustainable food systems.

People eat a variety of foods for different reasons, including desire, necessity, and tradition. Our food choices can change over time, influenced by a variety of factors, from accessibility to marketing and advertising. But 'food culture', the set of beliefs, values, and practices around food, can help to explain these changes.

Yet, the word 'culture' is a complex concept with various definitions. Some definitions emphasise the practical aspects of culture, viewing it as a toolkit for navigating everyday situations. Others, such as UNESCO's definition, highlight the broader and more nuanced aspects of culture, recognising its profound impact on our lives. This intangible cultural heritage, passed down from generation to generation, is a key to preserving cultural diversity and building bridges between cultures in today's interconnected world. Recognising food's profound cultural significance, UNESCO has inscribed several food-related practices, including Al-Mansaf from Jordan, Pyongyang Raengmyon from North Korea, and Ukrainian Borscht cooking, onto its list of intangible cultural heritage. These cooking traditions, exemplify not only what food is eaten but also how the food is prepared and how it is eaten.

Unlike intangible culture, 'food culture' explores the intricate relationship between how we approach our food, examining how cultural factors influence our culinary choices and preferences. It delves into the reasons behind our food choices, considering not just taste and nutrition but also traditions, beliefs, and social norms.

By understanding food culture, we gain insights into the diverse ways in which food shapes our identities, connects us to our communities, and reflects our evolving values. It helps us appreciate the rich tapestry of culinary traditions that define different cultures around the world, and in today's connected world, food culture is a big part of keeping different cultures alive and building bridges between them.

Decoding our dining choices: unraveling our food preferences

Food culture is more than just what we eat; it's also how we prepare and consume food. It encompasses our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours around food, shaped by various factors such as our environment, socialisation, and cultural practices.

Cultural food practices encompass both material and ideational elements, influencing our dietary patterns. Material elements include food production, acquisition, preparation, and consumption, while ideational aspects involve cuisine, meal rules, rituals, and social organisation around food.

Our food choices reflect our social identities and group memberships. Viewing eating habits through a cultural lens reveals how they are shaped by societal norms and structures.

How does food culture develop?

Food culture is constantly evolving, adapting to changing environments, preferences, and influences. Various factors contribute to the transformation of our eating habits and how we interact with food. Some of these factors are passive, stemming from our social surroundings, geographical location, cultural norms, and the food systems that dictate our access to different types of food. Besides basic needs, our food choices are driven by factors such as authenticity, taste, looks, price, comfort, convenience, health, variety, environment, origin, and ethics.

Traditionally, food culture was passed down through generations, serving as a repository of knowledge and practices that ensured survival and wellbeing. However, with the advent of modern lifestyles, increased mobility, and the interconnectedness brought about by globalisation, we've witnessed a rapid shift away from traditional eating patterns.

Cultural globalisation, the dissemination of ideas, values, and ways of life through technology, communication, and transportation, has exposed individuals to a wider array of cuisines and culinary techniques. This exposure has had both positive and negative consequences for food choices, behaviours, and nutrient intake.

The rise of urbanisation and fast-paced lifestyles has also played a significant role in shaping our food culture. Convenience and efficiency have become increasingly important as time spent on meal preparation is often perceived as unproductive. This shift is evident in recent surveys that show a growing prevalence of on-the-go meals, limited time spent on breakfast, and the widespread adoption of smart ordering technologies. A recent survey captures these trends:

  • 60% eat a meal on the go.
  • 70% spend 10 minutes or less on breakfast.
  • 95% spend less than 30 minutes on lunch.
  • 25% of people aged 18-44 use smart ordering.

The convenience factor

While individual choices undoubtedly play a role in shaping our food culture, it's crucial to recognise the broader forces that influence our eating habits and the availability of food options. By understanding the interplay between personal preferences, societal norms, and external factors, we can make more informed decisions about our food choices and advocate for a more sustainable, equitable, and health-conscious food system.

The focus on convenience has created great opportunities for companies that can produce palatable (which unfortunately usually means high salt, sugar, and fat) food that is convenient to purchase and easy to eat, i.e., mainly fast food and ultra- processed foods. It has led to a shift to modern eating culture that is becoming more standardised in the ‘how’ while maintaining a façade of diversity on the ‘what’ that manifests itself through a culturally ‘diverse’ market—“a place-centered environment (whether physical or virtual), where the marketers, consumers, brands, ideologies, and institutions of multiple cultures converge at one point of concurrent interaction”, and at the centre of this are the large food manufacturers who are shaping and using food culture for their benefit and the benefit of their shareholders.

How the food industry shapes our eating habits

Large food corporations face significant pressure to demonstrate their success, often perceiving it primarily in terms of financial growth and continued market presence. Food marketers are driven by profit, not necessarily by the desire to make people unhealthy, and so they strive to understand and satisfy consumer preferences in order to maximise their profits.

Under pressure from investors to show consistent growth, food companies are compelled to devise strategies that boost their market share. If influencing food culture proves to be a lucrative approach, food companies are likely to embrace such tactics without reservation.

For the largest food companies, a focus area for many years was standardisation because it helped them achieve economies of scale and improve their profit margins while also meeting the expectations of their customer base, which wanted the same product and product experience every time.

There's a lot of work to do to change the food industry's ways and make their products/services healthier for people and the planet. We as health professionals need to do more to create good food cultures around the world. It is a difficult but necessary journey. While on this journey, it is likely that we will all also come to appreciate the inherent beauty of food cultures as ends in themselves that are integral components of food systems.

Shifting away from standardisation

In the past decade, there has been a noticeable shift to more localisation because of the combination of globalisation, which means that more diverse customers must be reached, and consumers wanting to express their individuality through the choices they make. Given how important food culture is in driving eating behaviour, it is one of the key leverage points that companies are using to capture market share.

The methods that food companies use to localise their products have to be strategic and balanced because too much localisation would require customisation for every market segment – not only would this be overly complex, but the sheer costs of doing this would be enormous.

To make this process more reasonable, larger food companies use a ‘customisation-by-clusters’ strategy that first identifies and then uses key variables linked to consumer purchasing behaviour to create a small number of clusters that consist of individuals and populations with shared characteristics that influence their purchasing behaviour. Though this sounds simple, in practice, it is a very analytical and data-driven process that requires a lot of effort. The largest food companies have in-house groups devoted to collecting and analysing data to inform their localisation and customisation strategies. For example, Danone “gathers data on food habits and food cultures in the countries where it operates,” including running their Nutriplanet studies, which cover 55 countries and analyse “local nutrition and health contexts based on a review of the scientific literature, enhanced by interviews with local experts and key opinion leaders." Through these in-house and externally contracted groups, large food companies develop information systems that collect data from a variety of sources (census, demographic research, data from store scanners and loyalty cards, consumer surveys, internet sales data, data from agencies like ACNielson, as well as deep knowledge from retailers that can provide rich qualitative insights) to identify the key variables linked with consumer purchasing behaviour that can be used to inform the composition of clusters.

With this knowledge and insights in hand, the first task is to design products that will appeal to these clusters: “for a food product to carry meaning and value for consumers in culturally diverse markets, food products must be adapted to the prevailing frames of reference in each cultural context.” It is a creative process that leads to a smorgasbord of products that align with local ingredients, tastes, and ways of eating—i.e., food cultures—that yields products such as Cadbury’s Kiwi Royale in New Zealand and McDonald’s Rice Burger in Japan; Masala Grilled Veggie Burger and McAllo Tikki in India; and McRaclette Burger in Switzerland.

Food preparation techniques are also being adapted to streamline the cooking process and cater to the growing demand for convenient, ready-to-eat meals. Vance Packard's example of prepared cake mixes serve as a prime illustration of how food engineering alters our eating habits. Food companies originally created prepared cake mixes that only required a person to add water and bake, but this product did not sell well. Product developers found that housewives who were using these mixes liked the convenience but felt that there was not enough of their ‘touch’ in the preparation of the cake if they only had to add water. In response to this feedback, product developers developed a new type of cake mix that required the person to add eggs, milk, and oil, which sold much better and created an entirely new and accepted method of baking a cake that had not existed before.

Once localised products are created, the next and most important step is presenting and marketing them in alignment with local food cultures, because this is what will ultimately influence purchasing behaviour. The bottom line for marketers is that consumers prioritise tasty, affordable, diverse, convenient, and nutritious foods. Marketers strive to develop, market, distribute, and brand these foods effectively to achieve profitability.

For food marketers, this boils down to the '4 P's': "product," "price," "promotion,” and "place." Within the realm of food culture, LORE (local and regional food and meal culture) is one of the best examples of how food culture is used and manipulated to sell products—a ‘commercialisation of traditions’. Marketers reshape traditional food culture for modern needs and preferences, highlighting some aspects of the food and ignoring others to construct an image of the LORE that meets consumers’ needs.

In the process of creating the staged authenticity of LORE products, the marketers are also careful to ensure that the product will be accepted by culturally diverse markets. This process of ‘transcultural food marketing’ sees food products transformed in line with diverse and changing markets – think wine, cured meats, cheeses, etc.

The processes the food industry uses to leverage and manipulate food culture (both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’) is complicated.  They go about these processes in very methodical and creative ways with their goal of selling more of their products and increasing revenues clearly in their minds. There are some positive results from this in the sense that it helps to spread different cuisines and can help to bring more cultural unity but, often times, the negatives outweigh the positives. The predominant reason for this is that it is easiest to market unhealthy and convenient (i.e. ultra processed) options relative to healthier and more sustainable options. But is there something for us to learn here?

Positive food cultures: promoting healthier and more sustainable diets

Food cultures (what we eat and how we eat it) are not static – they can and do change over time.  We need to look no further for evidence of this than the food industry, which has clearly been very successful in using and manipulating food culture to further its ends. Their methods work.

We, in the health professions, must recognise the power and relationships between food culture and marketing that the food companies have been exploiting for so many decades: "…food culture shapes the demand for food and the meaning attached to particular foods, preparation styles, and eating practices, while marketing activities shape the overall environment in which food choices are made".

We must learn to use their approaches to design and promote a positive food culture that strives to maintain and foster good health and wellbeing, advocating for positive food habits, values, and beliefs through concerted efforts from all sectors of society.

We must engage food companies in a collaborative effort to modify their practices and mitigate the negative health consequences (such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, cardiovascular disease, overweight, and obesity) associated with their products, while recognising their priority of ensuring financial sustainability.

There are promising indications that progress is possible. The Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), a US NGO dedicated to health promotion, has collaborated with food companies to eliminate six trillion calories, fat, and sugar from their products. Additionally, Nestle Professional has publicly pledged to leverage its R&D expertise to enhance its products by reducing salt, sugar, and saturated fat. The Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition has also come up with a helpful set of recommendations to create more positive food cultures:

  • valorising the rich and varied aspect of conviviality;
  • protecting local territorial variety, with a view to expansion;
  • transferring knowledge and know-how as extraordinary funds of cultural wealth;
  • returning to a healthy relationship with the territory and the context of raw materials, aiming toward the excellence of the ingredients;
  • rediscovering the value of food as a means to achieving a fertile relationship across the generations, in the simplicity and clarity of its benefits;
  • recovering ancient flavors, which can be renewed in our modern taste;
  • spreading the culture of taste and the art of good living through authentic food.

There's a lot of work to do to change the food industry's ways and make their products/services healthier for people and the planet. We as health professionals need to do more to create good food cultures around the world. It is a difficult but necessary journey. While on this journey, it is likely that we will all also come to appreciate the inherent beauty of food cultures as ends in themselves that are integral components of food systems.

Anant Jani
Senior Researcher at Heidelberg Institute of Global Health and University of Oxford | + posts

Anant is a Senior Researcher working in the Heidelberg Institute for Global Health and University of Oxford. His work focuses on cross-sectoral approaches to promote health and prevent disease.

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