Food Families

by Penny Hammond on August 26, 2009

in Animal foods,Foods,Fungus foods,Plant Foods

Foods grow up in families. At the highest level (called a kingdom), the family may be animals, or plants, or fungi, or bacteria.The food families are divided into smaller and smaller groups, so we can see how they’re related to each other. How is this relevant to food choices?

Botanical relatives may have more than just physical features in common. They may also show similar nutrient profiles, the ability to trigger the same allergic or intolerant reaction, and other invisible characteristics.

Some examples of food families: Mammals, a subgroup of the animals kingdom, all nourish their young on mother’s milk, and they’re warm blooded. A subset of mammals is hoofed animals, including cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and deer. Green plants, in the Plant kingdom, stay in one place and get most of their energy from sunlight. One relatively small subset of this group is umbellifers, including carrots, parsley, cumin, fennel, parsnip, and celery. They have hollow stems, tend to have fleshy roots, and often have aromatic leaves. A few foods such as salt are minerals – they’re not biological, and belong to a different system.

These family groupings were first described in the 18th century, when Carl Linnaeus and others laid out the foundations of taxonomy (the practice and science of classification) and traveled the world categorizing everything they laid eyes on. The natural world is divided up in the way that made the most sense to the early scientists, based on visual characteristics. The divisions aren’t necessarily accurate reflections of how different species developed, and nowadays genetic testing can be done to give us a much better idea of how different parts of the natural world could be related to each other.

The original categories were put together by scientists from around the world who relied on an occasional ship to send and receive information, and on societies with small memberships to spread knowledge. Sometimes the same plant or animal collected a bunch of different names and families – it can be confusing that some plants and animals may look radically different depending on their growing conditions, which makes classification more difficult. For example, oysters are differentiated not by their species but by the names of the places where they grow, because that’s the easiest way to recognize them.

The food families are probably fairly accurate and can meet our needs of finding related foods, even if they’re not perfect. Look at a scorpion and a lobster. Scorpions are in the same phylum, Arthropods (a subset of the animal kingdom), as lobsters and shrimps. If you’re allergic to shellfish but an extremely adventurous eater, you should be careful trying scorpions in case you have a reaction to them.

Some health and weight loss diets advise for and against eating from certain food families. For example, some people with arthritis avoid foods from the nightshade family, including tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant/aubergines. The alliums, the family containing onions and garlic, are viewed as a good food by many specialists.

Are there any food families that you avoid or eat a lot of? Why?

Resources:
Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide – Lots of historical and current information on food plant usage, and photos of the plants and the parts used for food.
An Introduction to Plant Taxonomy – A brief but thorough look at the history and practices of classifying plants
Food Allergies and Food Intolerance: The Complete Guide to Their Identification and Treatment Food Allergies and Food Intolerance: The Complete Guide to Their Identification and Treatment – Detailed description of food allergies and intolerances and how to identify and treat them. Includes useful lists such as food families and hidden ingredients.

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