Food from the soul: A history of African American culture and nutrition

Many adaptations made by necessity during slavery to traditional African foods decreased their nutritional value and compromised their inherently nutritious properties.


Soul food is a phrase that commonly describes foods once enjoyed in the homelands of previously free Africans and adapted in the United States following Africans’ voyage to the U.S. on slave ships. Old and New World crops, European and Native American influences and African traditions have all contributed to soul food cuisine. Following their integration into Western culture, African foods were significantly modified. Many adaptations made by necessity during slavery to traditional African foods decreased their nutritional value and compromised their inherently nutritious properties, starting relatively unhealthy dietary patterns.

Many of these unhealthy adaptations have persisted across generations and have helped contribute to the development of chronic diseases and decreased life spans in many African Americans, who currently suffer higher rates of some chronic diseases over Americans of other races.

It is helpful for physicians to understand the history of soul food and how it evolved over the years as it relates to chronic disease and health in African American populations.

About soul food

The phrase soul food is thought to have become prominent during the Black Power movement of the 1960s, when the word soul was commonly used to describe Black culture.

Black-eyed peas, yams and sweet potatoes are a few of the foods that commonly appear in soul food dishes. Enslaved Africans also brought over okra and the kola nut, which Western Africans often chewed as a source of caffeine for energy. The kola nut is also heralded as a primary driver in the soda pop industry and a key ingredient in the original cola formulation.

Many fruits and vegetables brought from Africa grew well in America, so enslaved Africans planted gardens to help sustain themselves and others in their community.

American modifications lead to decreases in nutritional properties

Enslaved Africans used knowledge from their heritage to create what we now call soul food, a cuisine enjoyed by many that is inextricable from the American South. For example, gumbo, a renowned dish in New Orleans, is usually thickened with okra and is a version of a Senegalese stew made in plantation kitchens by enslaved Africans. As previously mentioned, many of the tweaks to soul food made during slavery decreased the nutritional value of traditional African dishes and contributed to unhealthy dietary patterns.

Millet and sorghum, cereal grain plants rich in nutrition, were commonly found in early Senegal and Sudan. They were especially prized in areas where rice and wheat were difficult to grow. The typical African meal used millet and sorghum as a type of porridge in stews and sauces. Sorghum is naturally rich in B vitamins and is a good source of protein, nutrients needed for survival in hot African climates.

Millet and sorghum lack gluten, so the bread made from these grains is unleavened and flat. These “flatbreads” inspired the soul food classic: hot water cornbread. These breads were created to help scoop up food and replace utensils at meals. Enslavers usually forbid enslaved Africans from using utensils for cooking and eating due to fearing they could be used as weapons during a revolt.

While sorghum and corn grain have nutritional benefits, hot water cornbread is typically fried in a skillet with butter and salt. This modified practice reduces the bread’s nutritional value by adding large amounts of salt and fat that can contribute to chronic diseases like obesity and cardiovascular disease.

How traditional staples have evolved over time

The yam is a staple in African culture. Enslaved Africans were adept at preparing yams and sweet potatoes due to their physical similarities. While enslaved Africans no longer had access to the African yam, they were able to substitute sweet potatoes for yams in meals due to the physical and textural similarities between the two vegetables.

Yams can be prepared in multiple ways, and a standard method is pounding. A gelatinous consistency is produced when pounded yams are combined with water and spices. This creation is known as fufu.

By minimizing additives, this traditional African dish maintains the nutritional value of the yam. Fufu can be compared to another soul food classic: sweet potato casserole, usually prepared by beating sweet potatoes into a thick consistency. Sweet potatoes are naturally high in vitamins and fiber. They are also fat-free and contain fewer calories than white potatoes. However, the typical sweet potato casserole is prepared in a way that minimizes these benefits. Once the butter, sugar and marshmallows are added, this dish no longer offers the same nutritional value inherent in the sweet potato or African yam.

The sweet potato casserole is another example of an adaptation made during slavery that increased the sugar content of a previously healthy dish. While these foods were modified for survival during slavery, they have contributed to the development of chronic disease and decreased life spans.

The effects of taking away the health benefits of staple foods

African Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with some chronic diseases, such as diabetes, than Americans of other races. An improved diet could reduce the negative effects of many of these diseases, specifically obesity and diabetes. Unfortunately, economically disadvantaged African Americans commonly eat meals containing high amounts of fat, salt and carbohydrates.

These nutrient patterns align with cultural food preferences for soul food dishes that have been passed through generations via recipes and preparation techniques. In addition, financial constraints and food access issues limit many African Americans’ ability to purchase foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meat and fish, which are usually more expensive than fatty, processed foods.

To change the future, we should understand and acknowledge the past. Knowledge is power, and good health should be attainable for all. The ingenuity of enslaved Africans helped them survive slavery, forcing them to alter the foods of their ancestors. Returning to traditional foods and preparation methods could improve health, attenuate chronic disease among people of color and serve to celebrate African heritage. In addition, learning about the indigenous crops of Africa that contributed to Western culture may help us better appreciate the contributions of our ancestors and better understand American history.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

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  1. JuliSu DiMucci-Ward


    I would love to get in touch with Dr. Ford as an asst professor at a DO school and a RD. I teach core 25 nutrition hours and an elective course in Foods and Nutrition in Medicine (FANAM). My background is in heritage diets, diabetes, metabolics and pediatrics.


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