Food & Religion

Lifestyle and food habits have been encoded and regulated by belief and religion for centuries. This choices might have a biological base, but their strength resides in their power as rituals and symbols. Many religions include regulations about food habits, including the three major ones: Judaism, Christianism and Islam.

 


Belief is a vital aspect in human life, in the sense that it builds identities and regulates lifestyle and daily habits, including those related to food. Belief and adherence to religious rituals can effectively define the dietary habits of people, and consequently they have an impact in the food industry. The specific needs of a religious community might impulse the development of specialised products to satisfy these needs.

The ritualistic expression of a particular belief and its relation to a particular habit has manifold aspects. One of them is the "allowed/forbidden food" regulations, which can refer to a specific foodstuff or a specific aspect of its preparation and consumption, such as time and space boundaries. Another is the abstention of food, or fasting, widely practised with some variations amongs beliefs. Fasting expresses the discipline and submission to the rules and it can also be considered as an expression of purification. Fasting is also usually related to time/space limits. The preparation of food is another aspect relevant to religious belief, as it is also regulated, particularly for meat in Judaism and Islam. The methodology of the sacrifice of animals, or the preparation of meals are within this category.

Besides the ritual aspects, belief also confers some foodstuff with particular symbolic meanings. In Christianism, a fish is to be considered the symbol of Jesus; a lamb, the representation of the Holy Ghost; the Wine and Bread in the ritual of Communion represent blood and flesh, and ultimately, a human sacrifice for redemption. On the other hand, pork meat for Jews and Muslims is associated with the concept of impurity. In Islam, the lamb represents the obedience of Ibrahim (Abraham) to Allah when he was ready to sacrifice his only son Ismail. It is sacrificed on a particular festivity (again another time boundary) in commemoration.

However, together with rituals and symbols, the biological and nutritional aspects of food are not forgotten, and most religions promote a healthy lifestyle based on varied and moderate diet, occasional fasting, and prohibition of intoxicating or harmful substances, such as alcohol or tobacco (much like the Traffic Police nowadays).

An example of healthy diet can be halal food. Halal (or allowed) meat is that of an animal which has been fed naturally (and not with artificial feed), and which is free of medications, hormones or other current industrial practices which have direct connection with many "modern" illnesses (such as cancer or heart disease), and which is slaughtered by slithing rather than electrocution (which also has an effect in the quality of the meat).

The food industry has to be aware of religious regulations on food if they are to address a wide range of consumers; also, natural and healthy practices in the food industry (and lifestyle) are demanded and promoted from the believers.


This text was prepared by Barbara Ruiz-Bejarano, AINIA Centro Tecnológico. Valencia, Spain.

For further questions please refer to: bruizbejarano@ainia.es