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Disgust and aversion of food

Food aversion may be cultural, psychological or physiological, and defined by personal preference or by society. The reasons for such aversion remain unclear, yet are presumed to be a measure of protection from food unsuitable for eating.
ST031-02 Degout cochon inde grille
© Shutterstock / anna mori - Peruvian cuy chactado, grilled guinea pig

Food (un)fit for eating

Our perception of food varies from one culture to another, in particular as to whether it is fit for eating, or not. Natural and cultural assumptions determine our likes and dislikes regarding food; they consolidate to form a traditional model of food culture. Feelings of disgust inherited from our evolution to protect ourselves against toxins can be innate or acquired after a bad experience; children reject bitter food, but appreciate it later in life. The carrion smell of decaying protein triggers nausea, which protects us from contamination; on the other hand, strong-smelling cheese and game hung to age can become a delicacy. Religion or ideology stigmatise some foodstuffs as impure and make eating them a taboo, such as pork in Judaism and Islam, horsemeat in Germanic culture and, more generally, the flesh of all pets, such as dogs and cats.

The origin of food aversion

Besides emotional or cultural disgust, aversion to certain foodstuffs may correspond to a personal or collective attitude, which is, for the most part, unfounded. Brussels sprouts or oysters are neither harmful nor stigmatised, yet they often create aversion. Even the idea of eating insects or larvae may seem repulsive, although they are harmless and even nutritious. Orange juice, served in a container designed for a urine sample, triggers disgust. The fear of contamination accentuates our resistance; an insect in a glass would not only spoil the drink, but even make the consumer feel self-disgust. Such fictional transference can lead Muslims, for example, to feel fear and disgust at the mere thought of pork. This idea goes beyond rational thinking to the realms of the imagination, creating a magical connection between eating and eaters, as reflected in the German proverb ‘Man ist, was man isst’ [You are what you eat] (Ludwig Feuerbach). Our behaviour may also be rationalised as, for example, defence against poisonous mushrooms or protection of endangered species such as whales.

Aversion to meat

In most cases, food aversion concerns meat. In fact, we do not all consider all animal flesh as edible. While it is a tasty source of nutrients, the idea of incorporating another living creature generates unease. Eating meat can then be perceived as an act of aggression and implies taking the blame for slaughtering an animal. Due to our emotional or ‘genetic’ relationship with pets or monkeys, eating them is akin to symbolic cannibalism. We avoid food considered too close to us, or too distant, such as animals that feed on rotting matter. In Western societies that tend to present meat in a less recognisable form, organs such as offal, viscera, brains and eyes remind us of their primary function and hence arouse repulsion. Health crises reinforce our aversion to uncleanliness, as became apparent with ‘mad cow disease’.