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by Dr PHUA Kai Lit
School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Monash University Sunway Campus
Bandar Sunway, Malaysia

(Lecture Notes for Dr Phua's Lectures Only)

Lecture One: Anthropology of Food

Would you consider the following to be food?

Pork rinds (deep fried pig skin) (USA)
Raw fish (Japan)
Jellied eel (England)
Frog (France)
Snail (France)
Animal brain (France)
Rattlesnake (Texas, USA)
Blubber (raw sea mammal fat) (Alaska)
Spinal cord of sturgeon fish (Russia)
Haggis (sheep stomach stuffed with oatmeal) (Scotland)

And how about the following?

Blutwurst (blood sausage) (Germany)
Black Pudding (England)
Fresh blood from a living cow (Kenya)
Roasted ants (Colombia)
Roasted scorpions (China)
Live sago palm maggots (beetle larvae)(Papua New Guinea)
Dog meat (Korea and Vietnam)
Baalut (Philippines)
Snake wine (China)
Bull testicles (Spain and USA)
Fish sperm (Japan)

And how would foreigners consider the following Malaysian "foods"?

Fried cow lung
Bird's nest soup
Chicken blood (coagulated and steamed)
Chicken feet a.k.a. "Phoenix Claws"
Sea cucumber
Betel nut
Fish head curry
Truly Malaysian:
Durian a.k.a. "The King of Fruits"
Described as "eating custard while sitting on the toilet"

Here are some cruel "foods" and macho "foods"

Veal (USA)
Unagi (Grilled eel. Cruel processing of the live eel) (Japan)
"Bush meat" (parts of Africa)
Fresh snake blood (China)
Fresh monkey brain (China)

Not to forget Malaysian ones!
Rhino horn
Bear bile
Shark fin soup
Drunken prawns

Macho food -- fugu (Japan)

Therefore "food" and "non-food" are culturally defined:
e.g. Dog meat is eaten in Vietnam but abhored in USA ("How can you eat your PET!!")

Food "Oddities"

"Sacred food" versus "profane food":Sacred food -- Christian communion wine and bread, ganja to Rastafarians
Profane food -- pork and alcohol (Muslims), beef (Hindus), non-kosher food (Jews)

Parallel classification of food: "Hot" and "Cold" foods

Mood-altering foods (found in all cultures) e.g. alcohol

"Medicinal foods" e.g. Chinese snake wine, cod liver oil

Aphrodisiacs i.e. food that is considered to be good for your libido such as "Tongkat Ali"

Ritual cannibalism:
Eating parts of your dead enemy
Eating parts of your dead relative
e.g. Carleton Gadjusek and his study of kuru in Papua New Guinea

Voluntary starvation i.e. fasting

Vegetarianism: all the different kinds

Social Foods

(1) Ethnic foods e.g. "national dish"
(2) Prestige foods i.e. very expensive or rare foods which are consumed by aristocrats and the upper classes. To show that you can afford it! Note that huge and expensive banquets serve the same function.
(3) Gendered foods e.g. "men's foods" or "women's foods" (which the other gender is forbidden to eat)

Food and Health

Inadequate food (PEM), inadequate intake of essential vitamins, minerals or trace elements, overeating and obesity. Drinking of polluted water. "Junk food" consumption

Contaminated food:
Biological contamination, chemical contamination, physical contamination, radiation contamination.

Improper food preparation methods e.g. case of Japanese who die after eating improperly prepared "fugu" (blowfish)

Unhealthy food preparation environment e.g. poorly ventilated kitchen with stoves that burn charcoal

Food and the Life Cycle/Special Food Requirements

Think about how nutritional requirements differ at different stages of life:
Fetus, early infancy, weaning, child, teenager, middle age, elderly

How do food requirements differ by gender?
e.g. food requirements of women during menstruation, pregnancy, post-partum period with lactation

How do food requirements change during sickness? (including chronic diseases such as diabetes)

How do food requirements differ by occupation/environment?
e.g. Manual labour with high energy requirements, working in a hot environment that results in heavy sweating

Lecture Two: All About Food: From the Forest/Sea/Farm to Your Stomach


1. Food production
2. Processing
3. Storage
4. Distribution and sale
5. Preparation e.g. cooking
6. Immediate consumption
7. Saving for subsequent consumption

Contamination is possible at any of these stages!


Vegetables and fruits: pesticide residues, herbicide residues, bio contaminants, natural toxins e.g. tapioca

Meat: Meat from diseased animals
Fecal contamination during slaughtering
One hamburger can contain the meat from dozens of cows!

Chemical contamination e.g. Minamata Disease
Biological contamination e.g. hepatitis


Methods of processing:
Canning and packing
Radiation (in irradiated foods)

Can these methods of processing affect health? Example: nitrosamines in salted fish
Important role of public health inspectors during the stage of processing (and later during the stage of food preparation)


Food may be contaminated during storage:
Biological contamination e.g. urine and faeces of vermin such as rats and cockroaches
Chemical contamination e.g. containers that leach chemicals
Physical contamination e.g. pieces of glass (from broken containers) in stored food


Safe methods versus unsafe methods

Unsafe/unhealthy methods: wilting vegetables in open vans and trucks,
lorries carrying live animals exposed to surroundings (often jam-packed together)

Paradox: Efficient distribution methods spread contaminated food more quickly AND widely!


How does food preparation affect health?

Degree of cooking: raw food (raw fish, salads), semi-cooked food, cooked food, overcooked food

Food preparation environment:
Wood, charcoal, coal, gas, microwave, electricity, water (used for cooking)
May generate toxic gases, toxic ashes, steam, boiling water, fires, radiation etc

Toxic compounds in food can be produced by the cooking process itself


Immediate consumption:
Contaminated eating utensils e.g. bowls and containers, hands, chopsticks, spoons, knives and forks
Sharing of food e.g. many people dipping their spoons into a common bowl,
passing of food from one person to another

Unhealthy surrounding environment where food is consumed

Storing for subsequent consumption:
Improper storage e.g. exposed to flies, ants, cockroaches, dust
Temperature which promotes bacterial growth
Containers with bio contaminants
Containers that leach chemical and physical contaminants
Improper reheating/re-cooking of previously cooked food

Lecture Three: Some Critical Issues Related to Food

Here are some critical issues:

1. Food security
2. Factory farming
3. The processed food and fast food industries
4. Legal additives
5. Legal drugs
6. Synthetic foods

Food Security

Why malnutrition and actual starvation in the world today?
Not due to unavailability of food
(Modern transport methods can move food quickly from one place to another)
Due to lack of money
Due to inflated food prices (during times of crop failure e.g. drought, flood)
Due to unequal access to land :
Landlordism, high land rents, low prices for crops grown by peasants,
corporate control of land i.e. best land is used for growing export crops rather than food
Debt to money-lenders: loss of animals, tools or land (if the peasant is lucky enough to own some land in the first place)

"Land hunger" of peasants in the Third World
Land hunger is a major factor in radical agrarian revolutions e.g. Communist revolution in China in 1949

Food First (a progressive NGO that works on food security)

Factory Farming

Modern agriculture: heavy use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers
Animal feed: antibiotics in animal feed, other chemicals in animal feed (e.g. growth hormone), "Mad Cow" Disease
Inhumane rearing conditions: cattle in narrow pens full of faeces, animals closely-packed together
Slaughterhouse conditions can be unhygienic
"Franken foods" i.e. genetically-modified foods (GM foods)
Irradiated foods (radiation of food to "extend shelf life")

Website on factory farming

Is the meat you are eating safe?

The Processed Food and Fast Food Industries

Processed food and fast food are important in our diet: "No time to cook"
Eating out/eating fast food/buying "quick-cooking" processed food

Diet change: introduction of the "Western diet"
Soft drinks: very acidic, high sugar content, additives
Processed foods: high in salt, sugar, fat, additives
Polished rice, white bread which require "food fortification"!

Legal Additives

Flavour enhancers e.g. MSG, salt, sugar, poppy seeds
Artificial flavours/smell
Colouring e.g. Red Dye # 2

Caffeine in Coke
Cocaine (!) in old Coke

But additives can be healthy e.g. Vitamin A in cooking oil, iodised salt

Food additives (dangerous as well as healthy ones)

Legal Drugs

Food: tobacco, betel nut
Drinks: alcohol, coffee, tea etc

Medical drugs:
Can be poisonous if given to wrong person, given in wrong dosage etc.
Medical drugs include health supplements (including traditional ones)
Problem of counterfeit drugs

Medical drugs require proper lab testing, registration, quality control,
regulation of distribution and sale, monitoring of adverse events

Drug Control Authority (Malaysia), Pusat Racun Negara (Malaysia), Food and Drug Administration or FDA (USA)

Unsafe drugs approved and later withdrawn by the Food & Drug Administration (USA)

Synthetic Foods

Can be food with no or low actual content e.g. processed fruit drinks, "cheese food", pandan cake, strawberry ice cream
GM (genetically-modified foods)

Not getting "value for money"
Are they hazardous to health?

Articles on GM foods