Origins and benefits of food sharing

by Selin Ilgaz

 “Sharing food has always been a social ritual, and sharing photos of that food can serve as an extension of this, especially when loved ones are absent” Nathalie Nahai

Food is not only something we consume out of vital necessity, it is also good to eat and even better to share. Eating together with others builds up and strengthens social interactions. As such, many of our social activities involve eating, and even eating with strangers is better than eating alone. We go for a dinner on our first date; we catch up with our friends over lunch; we have business dinners and family gatherings around food… Clearly, food is an important factor in our social lives and through food we are able to create, reinforce and renew social bonds. But what is the rationale of such behaviour and what are the origins of food sharing among humans?

There are several ways to look at this question. First, there is the evolutionary point of view of human food transfers and the origins of human hyper-sociality. Or second, we can examine what the effects of sharing a meal and eating together are, and how they are beneficial for communities.

Humans have always been sharing food throughout their existence and although this behaviour is also observed in other animals including some insects, mammals and certain species of birds; there is a particular pattern and complexity in the way humans share food among each other. While most mammals provide their infants with food only during the lactation period, humans support their offspring until adulthood and moreover, in most cultures, food transfers between parents and children continue both ways until death. Food transfers are not only limited to within the nuclear family but they also occur between different households. Indeed, as seen in hunter-gatherers, not everybody can collect the necessary amount of food in order to feed the whole family and resource flows between different families become fundamental for survival. In fact, it is argued that without those inter-familial food transfers, human life course and intelligence couldn’t have evolved.

Research conducted on hunter-gatherer societies and non-human primates has shown several reasons for food transfers. Amidst multiple reasons we primarily have reciprocal altruism that can explain most cases of human food sharing. This theory proposes that food is given to those who don’t have it with the expectation of having the favour returned later in time. The usual form of trade is food for food, but the return benefits can be of another nature such as food for labour, fish for yams or food for sex. Although this is the most probable and accurate theory most of the time, it certainly can’t be the whole story; particularly given the case of elderly people who will never be able to ‘pay back’. Other reasons of human food sharing include tolerated theft. There are always asymmetries between individuals; the person who gathers large quantities of food but won’t be able to consume it all, while the hungry individual is motivated to fight or steal, leading to food transfers between those individuals. Last but not least, close kin members receive greater amounts of food for the simple reason of shared genetics; thus by helping relatives the chances to be favoured by natural selection are increased.

This evolutionary point of view looks literally at the exchange of food, giving and receiving it. But what about the communal view, the effects of eating together as a community?

Perhaps the most traditional and common way of food sharing is around family meals. Family is the most fundamental commensal unit and circle, frequently uniting family members at particular times and at specific places to consume food. Aside from providing a space for interaction and bonding, having regular family meals supplies the child with strong resources allowing a healthy development. Indeed, family meals are a protective factor against anti-social behaviour and health issues such as bad eating habits, obesity, drug abuse, poor school results, early sexual activity and suicidal risk. However, the traditional family meal appears to be under threat. Indeed, with the increase of individualization in western society, there is a decrease in the tendency of consuming meals with family members and this decline is strongly associated with social and psychological consequences. These consequences include augmentation in eating disorders and a decline in family relationships. It is therefore important to support initiatives to restore this tradition.

While traditional family meals disappear, the internet is bursting with people sharing pictures of food. You wouldn’t be alone if you’ve been annoyed by the amount of cute cupcake or juicy steak pictures that fill your Facebook or Instagram feed. Maybe you even shared one of these pictures and what’s fascinating is that people don’t seem to tire of taking pictures of food and sharing them online. However, before getting too judgmental about this social phenomenon, it’s interesting to consider the reasons underlying this behaviour. Research suggests that social media is an extension of the dinner table, allowing loved ones to share their experiences from far away. The internet is thus providing us with a new way to share food. As to the explanations that people give for sharing food photographs, a survey from Nathalie Nahai gathered the top 3 reasons. People mostly say that they share pictures because they are proud they made the food themselves, to record an event or social occasion and lastly because it looks beautiful, “like art”. The latter point is intriguing as there are numerous still life paintings and art works based on food in the history of art and perhaps sharing pictures of our beautiful looking food on social media is the new way to appreciate it.


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Jaeggi, A. V., & Gurven, M. (2013). Reciprocity explains food sharing in humans and other primates independent of kin selection and tolerated scrounging: a phylogenetic meta-analysis. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 280(1768).

Kaplan, H. & Gurven, M. (in press) The natural history of human food sharing and cooperation: a review and a new multi-individual approach to the negotiation of norms. In: Moral sentiments and material interests: The foundations of cooperation in economic life, eds. H. Gintis, S. Bowles, R. Boyd & E. Fehrs. MIT Press.

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