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Sciences des Aliments

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An international journal of food science and technology

 ARTICLE VOL 28/4-5 - 2008  - pp.293-301  - doi:10.3166/sda.28.293-301
Meat consumption throughout history and across cultures

Before considering the role of culture in meat consumption, it’s helpful to recall several fundamental “biological principals”. Most populations have maintained meat as an appealing protein source, and it is generally agreed that this attraction constitutes a response to biological determinants. Because it takes the body longer to digest and absorb meat’s complex amino acid molecules, meat tends to provide a feeling of satiety that is strong and long-lasting; thus meat has been preferred to vegetable products by all peoples seeking satiety (Lambert, 1997: 242). The physiology and digestive processes of our species predispose us to prefer products of animal origin because they constitute better protein sources, per cooked portion, than most products of vegetable origin. And proteins are important because the body uses them to stimulate and control tissue growth (Harris, 1985: 31). Thus many cultures have placed and continue to place great value on “meat” and maintain that, without it, people will “remain hungry” no matter how many vegetables and legumes they eat. Biological conditioning, however, isn’t sufficient to explain human food consumption behaviour, which has been subject to many different determining factors since the very origin of the species. The importance of cultural considerations in understanding food behaviour is clear when we note how biological factors manifest themselves in different ways in different societies. Three different observations serve as a point of departure: 1) Different preferences and aversions exists in different cultures regarding the same protein sources (insects, frog, snail, dog, horse, pig, cow, etc.) that go beyond biological conditioning and that reflect different strategies of adaptation to their environments; 2) In all known cultures, food taboos related to products of animal origin are much stronger than those related to products of vegetable origin. Animals possess morphological characteristics that make them much “closer” (than vegetables) to humans; and the “closer” they are to humans, the more they become objects of taboos, prohibitions, and aversions (Fischler, 1995; Lambert, 1997; Leach, 1972); and 3) Ethnologists have frequently observed that meat is the most coveted food product. The consideration of meat in different cultures and historic periods has been so significant that historians have considered growth in the per capita meat consumption of a society as a measure of its prosperity; in general, when income rose, so did meat consumption (Fischler, 1995: 117-118; Harris, 1985: 23-24).




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