Charlotte Fabiansson

College of Arts, Victoria University, Melbourne Australia,

Email: [email protected]

Attitudes, behaviours and actions are habitually influenced by religious beliefs and a person’s social and cultural milieu. A circumstance that is often forgotten when scientific experts and governments promote guidelines for health and wellbeing. Interconnections between technical aspects and social context are largely overlooked within the natural sciences, but so too are people in acknowledging public health risks.

Our modern complex society, where the source of products and the ingredients in processed food are obscure for both a layperson and an expert, social context and sociological risk analysis bridge the gap between expert knowledge and people’s perception of risks. The socio-cultural, risk society and governmentality risk discourses are pertinent in analysing everyday activities, how perception of wellbeing is viewed within a socio-cultural framework, but also how the social and physical environment influence people in adapting to their own social and cultural everyday life.

Risks regarding personal health are increasing not only with a rising obese and overweight global population, but also in harmful effects of process-induced contaminants or dangerous substitution of popular food supplement ingredients.

Excess body weight is a major individual, societal and economic problem of global significance; it is a highly visible and it is a pertinent socio-cultural risk issue (Douglas 1982; Wildavsky and Dake 1990). Even if the increase in the incidences of obesity has levelled in some parts of the world, others have just started the risk trajectory. Excessive weight gain is a slow process, which has diverse and multifactorial health consequences. Obesity places huge financial burdens on governments and individuals and it is estimated to account for up to 21 per cent of the total health care costs in some developed countries (Cawley and Meyerhoefer 2012).

Causes to the growth in overweight and obesity are multifactorial, and should not be referred to as individual health issues, it makes much more sense to view obesity in line with the socio-cultural risk discourse as a societal problem involving interactions between the individual and the fast moving society where eating, working and entertainment time have merged.

Obesity is a risk we can visualise, but this is not necessarily the case for process-induced contaminants formed during home cooking. Meat barbecuing is a common social activity during the warmer part of the year in many countries. Despite multiple warnings fat is still allowed to drip onto the heat source causing the formation of volatilised carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons being absorbed by the meat (Knize and Felton 2005). Innocuous looking toasting of sliced bread to dark brown can lead to the formation of high levels of carcinogenic acrylamide (Lineback and Stadler 2008). Pan frying of meat and fish at high temperatures can lead to the formation of high levels of carcinogenic heterocyclic amines particularly in pan drippings, later used to make gravy, which is a common cultural custom (Kizil et al. 2011).

These three process-induced contaminants are all suspected of being involved in the complex process of human cancer development. Since this is a long term process, there are few signs recognisable by the public to connect particular cooking habits with the progression of cancer later in life.

There is an evolving perception among some people that they might be at risk of malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies, even with the best of diets. This has paved the way for the promotion of extensive use of dietary supplements, in the belief that at least the supplements will do no harm. The use of supplements signify an anomaly in perception of risk, as the public perception of nutritional risk is diametrically opposed to recent scientific findings demonstrating that some dietary supplements actually can do more harm than good.

Cases of idiosyncratic drug-induced liver injury following consumption of dietary supplements in Australia and other parts of the world have highlighted the need to better explore risks posed by such formulations (Smith et al. 2016; Stickel and Shouval 2015; Teschke et al. 2014). Discrepancies between labelling and the actual content of herbal supplements make it even more difficult for the layperson to assess any risks with the supplements (Newmaster et al. 2013).

The socio-cultural risk discourse perspective highlights that an overall system change is warranted with a broadening of the way we undertake research. The requirement for inter-discipline collaboration to gain a more complete understanding about essential public health issues, which should include the influence of a person’s social, and cultural environment (Beck 1992).


Beck, U. (1992[2007]). Risk society. Towards a new modernity. London, United Kingdom: Sage Publications.

Cawley, J. and Meyerhoefer, C. (2012). The medical care costs of obesity: an instrumental variables approach. Journal of Health Economics, 31(1): 219-30.

Douglas, M. ([1966]1969). Purity and danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Douglas, M. (1982). Cultural bias. In Douglas, M. (ed.), The active voice. London, United Kingdom: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 183-254.

Douglas, M. (1984). Food in the social order: studies of food and festivities in three American communities. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Douglas, M. (1985). Risk acceptability according to the social sciences. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Kizil, M., Oz, F. and Besler, H.T. (2011). A review on the formation of carcinogenic/mutagenic heterocyclic aromatic amines. Journal of Food Processing and Technology, 2: 120-24.