Traditional food systems – beyond nutrition : Dr S D Kholkute


Changing socio economic and cultural scenario, migration, educational status, popularisation of commercial modern food practices are influencing the dietary practices of the community, especially the younger generation. As a consequence, the loss of traditional food systems will result in decreasing culture-specific food activities, decreasing dietary diversity and decreasing cultural morale.

Traditional food system is generally linked to the socio-cultural, economical and nutritional consequences for a particular community, region or group of people consuming it. The food system depends on various aspects and varies significantly from region to region, community to community and time to time. The variations are also evident in the food and nutritional status of rural and urban community.

Understanding the food systems of indigenous local people and improving and strengthening them in the context of nutrition and health is a major concern in the present scenario of increasing nutritional deficiency across the globe. It is estimated that about 925 million people suffer food and nutrition insecurity globally. In addition, about 195 million children below five years are reported to have stunted growth, which is mainly due to malnutrition.

On the other hand, it is also estimated that about a billion people are overweight and another 300 million are obese in both the developed and developing world, increasing the risk of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. This is mainly because of imbalanced diet and over-nutrition, which also need to be looked into for healthy population.

It is well recognised that traditional food and dietary diversity within an ecosystem is a powerful source of nutrients and, thus, better health. Not only that, the indigenous food system is influenced by local biodiversity. It is also an indicator of local biodiversity, on which it depends on. Their food patterns are influenced by seasons, traditions and environment, which also have their own science for wellbeing of the people. Dependency on local resources, especially on plants, makes these systems unique to the region.

Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that about 10,000 plant species have been used for human food globally. Out of these, only about 150-200 species have been commercially cultivated. However, it is observed that cultivation practices led to substantial reduction in the genetic diversity of domesticated plants and animals, which is directly linked to quality of the global food and nutrition.

Therefore, it is time to carefully look into locally available food system, especially from indigenous people, for the best possible utilisation of natural resources for the health and nutrition of the community along with conserving strings of cultural heritage.

Choice and availability
The food needs and choice of people are multifactorial and influenced by wide range of factors like environment, society, culture and personal taste. The availability is the limiting factor for choice, which in turn depends on several factors again. The floral and faunal diversity is must for those with hunting and gathering traditions for a balanced diet, whereas agricultural practices, production and marketing decides the nature of food to the urban population. However, it is the quantity of the species available that is the key to dietary adequacy. Contemporary issues in modern agricultural practices and market strategies, leading to food contaminations are also a major concern.

Cultural preferences, affordability, influence of education and the media, individual biological need are the factors influencing the choice of food. Beliefs about qualities of a particular food, reasons for adopting a particular diet structure is based on the societal culture, which is more effective in case of a plant into the realm of traditional medicine, as observed in Belgaum region. Several times, the food and medicine becomes one, which generally known in Indian Ayurveda as ‘food as medicine and medicine as food’. The biological needs of the individual, as determined by contemporary science, have been well described in relation to age, gender, stage of development, the extent of a person’s physical exercise, work performance and state of health or pathology. It is difficult for indigenous people and the culture to have dialogues with modern science, where the traditional cultural food system is not scientifically defined. Therefore, the minimum understanding on the ethnic food culture need to be developed in modern contemporary science for better exploration of improvement possibilities and more over to avoid forced biological adaptation to the changed dietary systems.

Added qualities
The major identity of traditional food systems of indigenous people are the species’ diversity as food, which are from natural environment of varied conditions, the local technologies developed to harvest and process the food and the sensory qualities and dietary structures. These are the deciding qualities of the chemical and nutritional contents of the diets of indigenous people. By proper understanding of these qualities, it is possible to obtain the overall perspective on the vast diversity of food available and the best possible technologies for their processing, which are nutritious and affordable for complete human nourishment.

The vast diversity of food species is good both in terms of dietary and nutritional supplements. The wild edible fruits, for instance, from Central Western Ghats of Belgaum region, demonstrate the advantages of consuming fruits as regular diet. It was observed that fruits from 29 species of wild plants are consumed by local people, of which more than 80% are reported to be medicinal. Similar observations in the diversity of animals and birds used as food by Arctic people were also reported. Utility of 156 species of wild plants, which are used as food by various ethnic groups, have also been documented. Similarly, the nutritive values of the species of plants used as food in emergencies from Central India were also investigated.

It is documented from North-East India that more than 250 types of fermented food products are used in the diet of ethnic communities. Diverse microorganisms are involved in the process of their preparation, which are found to enhance the health promoting benefits, protective values, therapeutic values and also bio enrichment of nutritive values.

The diet evolved over generations keeping in view the nutritive requirements of the community. In Ayurveda, it is described that food is a major source for serving the nutritional needs and hence balanced diet is required to maintain good health. As traditional food practices are less known and documented scientifically, further exploration to its maximum benefits is hindered to a large extent.

Threats to traditional food systems
Loss of food systems is also a loss of diversity in culture. A loss of single system from an ethnic community results in loss of food use, loss of knowledge to recognise, harvest, prepare, and enjoy traditional indigenous food resources, which in turn is a knowledge bank for all humankind. The loss will also result into nutritional imbalance in that ethnic group, which may lead to a variety of chronic diseases that have food and compromised nutritional status within their etiology.

The major threat to the traditional food system is non-availability of traditional food species, in terms of plants, animals, birds etc. Nonetheless, the other factors like changing socio economic and cultural scenario, migration, educational status, popularisation of commercial modern food practices etc. are influencing the dietary practices of the community, especially the younger generation.

As a consequence, the loss of traditional food system will result in decreasing culture-specific food activities, decreasing dietary diversity and decreasing cultural morale. In one such study, the nutrition and health consequences of changing lifestyles of indigenous people in North America have been documented and is found that the diet changes are directly linked to obesity, diabetes, and related complications like cardio vascular disease.

The future with traditional food system
It is possible that nutritional status and good health is maintained even with loss of traditional, cultural food systems, intimate relationship between people and their natural environment, mainly due to supply of vast variety of food items from elsewhere. However, the question of affordability comes in terms of economic viability to maintain the nutritional status of the local indigenous community. Therefore, it is learnt that traditional food systems can provide strategies to combat malnutrition while ensuring sustainable development.

FAO also started promoting the traditional food system and recommends various governments for assistance to promote traditional food plants and their popularisation. It is also proposed to involve local indigenous people in the action plans, as they are the stakeholders and tenants of traditional food system knowledge. The main drawback is the unavailability of proper documentation for further conservation and evaluation efforts. Hence the documentation of traditional food system is urgent, as the traditional knowledge of food varieties, their harvesting and preparation is fast disappearing. The joint efforts from all concerned in the global level only can help, not only to conserve, but also to evaluate and propagate traditional food. This, definitely, will be an answer as well as a challenge to much debated increase in the food security and enhanced nutritional status for community, which will be ‘from local to global’.

Dr S D Kholkute is Director National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health (ICMR), Mumbai
With inputs from Dr H V Hegde and Dr Gireesh Ankad from Regional Medical Research Centre (ICMR), Belgaum

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