SA’s extraordinary egg taboo – what a marketing opp for the egg industry?

Eggs are a (relatively) affordable source of protein so why are many South African girls and young women encouraged to avoid them? Food historian and anthropologist, Anna Trapido uncovers this story and suggests the egg industry could wield social media marketing to reverse this….

Food taboos prohibiting the consumption of specific ingredients (or combinations thereof) exist almost everywhere. These dietary restrictions are often understood by those who follow them as social and spiritual regulators of moral order. 

Some are embedded within traditional medicine systems protecting people against eating toxins and/or promoting processes that maximise nutritional value. Others have been shown to support environmental sustainability through restricted consumption of certain flora and fauna.

Mostly food taboos exist to create and maintain community identity – we are who we are because of what we eat and what we do not eat as a group.

Where there are communities, there is almost always inequality. Vulnerable and marginalised groups, notably women and girls, are often subject to the greatest number of food taboos.

According to the UN Administrative Committee on Coordination/Subcommittee on Nutrition (ACC/SCN) Fourth Report on the World Nutrition Situation, Geneva (2000): “Because the negative consequences of food insecurity reverberate across many life domains (mental health, physical well-being, academic achievement, work performance, etc), taboos creating differences in access to food have long-term life chance consequences that may amplify the disadvantaged status of women.”

“…egg eating is believed to accelerate the development of womanly bodies and libidinous behaviour. …

In southern Africa, access to eggs is an example of gender-specific, dietary disadvantage through food taboo.

Studies in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape confirm my anecdotal experience that many girls, female teens and sometimes young women in our region do not eat eggs ostensibly because egg eating is believed to accelerate the development of womanly bodies and libidinous behaviour. [1] 

The fear being that girls who are mentally still children will be drawn into premature and promiscuous sexual activity before they are able to understand the consequences thereof. While this taboo is most commonly articulated in rural areas, urban girls and young women are often subject to subtler social pressure. While city-dwelling adults seldom explicitly say don’t, those who do are judged. Peer pressure does the rest.

It would be easy to interpret all of the above as the villainous patriarchy seeking to control female bodies and sexuality. There is undoubtedly some of that but there are also other issues involved. In a society such as ours, within which teenage girls are known to be extremely vulnerable to sexual assault and coercion, wanting to stretch childhood for as long as possible is an understandable response. 

Understandable, but banning egg eating is an erroneous and ineffective response. Not only because child abuse rates are very high regardless of food taboos, but also because the most consistent predictors of early puberty are childhood obesity and exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (mainly through processed foods).

While anything eaten in excess can cause weight gain, eggs generally support healthy body development. The key causes of South Africa’s increasingly unhealthy children are sedentary behaviour combined with diets high in unhealthy fats, refined carbohydrates and sugar. It’s cooldrinks and kotas, not eggs, that promote early puberty.

In affluent societies where alternative protein sources are readily available, taboo food can be replaced with other equally nutritious ingredients, but in poor communities, the prohibition of eggs can have profoundly negative consequences. 

While South Africa’s egg price has recently risen in line with the challenges of load shedding, they are still one of the few affordable protein-rich foods.

The absence of eggs is especially damaging where the nutritional demands of adolescent growing bone and muscle mass, menstruation and early pregnancy overlap.

The latest adolescent pregnancy data from Statistics South Africa show that 90,037 girls aged 10 to 19 years gave birth from March 2021 to April 2022, across all provinces. These figures are likely to be Covid-inflated – the Gauteng health department shows a 60% rise in underage births during the pandemic, with more than 23,000 girls under 18 giving birth between April 2020 and March 2021 (of whom 934 were under 14) compared with 14,577 girls aged 19 and under having babies in the same period a year earlier. 

Either way, that is a lot of young women in need of nutritional support, many of whom are excluding eggs from their diet. I suppose the supporters of an egg taboo would say that it is egg eating that resulted in the above statistics.

Iron-deficiency anaemia is extremely high among South African girls and young women. The January 2018 issue of The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published a paper from Dr Zandile Mchiza (UWC School of Public Health) which found high prevalences of anaemia, iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anaemia in 15- to 18-year-old South African females (11.2%, 8.8% and 20.2%, respectively). Black women (19 to 24 years) were up to 40 times more likely to present with iron deficiency compared with their non-black counterparts.

Given the increased energy and nutrition needs during pregnancy, abstaining from key protein sources is likely to undermine the food and nutrition security status of the mother and foetus, with long-term consequences for both.

Maternal malnutrition has been linked to death in childbirth and low birth weight, which in turn results in high infant morbidity and mortality. There is increasing evidence that foetal malnutrition harms health status in later life, increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases such as cardiac disease and diabetes.

Eggs provide a complete protein that includes amino acids necessary for your body plus B vitamins, vitamins A, D and E, and minerals such as selenium.

Unfortunately, the other relatively cheap, high-protein food, offal, is often also off the table during pregnancy. It is frequently discouraged in southern Africa because of a belief that a child will be born with a double set of internal organs or a fear that offal eating makes big babies and consequently difficult deliveries.

Both eggs and liver contain choline, which (together with folate) is essential in early pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects.

The big-baby anxiety is not without validity. Public health research worldwide substantiates fears that heavier birth weights can pose serious risks for the mother and child[1]. These findings should alert medical practitioners to the need to address valid maternal fears around risky delivery and invest in appropriate healthcare support.

While it is possible to meet protein needs from plant sources such as legumes, nuts and seeds, to do so requires consistent, intentional and often expensive attention to dietary detail. Teenagers are not known for their consistent, intentional anything.

So, what now?

Egg avoidance might seem insurmountable but dietary habits generally only seem static when observed over a short period. People and plates can change. They respond poorly to nagging and lectures but are often enthusiastic about more positive culinary campaigns. 

Sustainable, community-initiated modifications to potentially disadvantageous food taboos have happened.

Abigail Neely’s 2021 study of changing dietary patterns 1930-1950 within Zulu hlonipha (a regulated code of manners that traditionally determines language, dress and food prohibitions for newly married “amakoti” women in KwaZulu-Natal) shows that labour migration and healthcare service provision (within which powdered milk became available) resulted in new social, economic and spiritual relationship with cows and dairy which subsequently modified nutritionally disadvantageous food taboos that had previously restricted the access of young women to amasi (sour milk)……

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