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Food studies

This page explains what the subject of food studies covers, gives an overview of the material the British Library holds for this subject, and advice on how you can find and use it. It also gives details of current activities for developing the collections for this subject.

  • Food plays a crucial role in shaping the world and the way we live in it. 
  • Food has historically been the catalyst for trade, travel and migration. 
  • Food is central to economic life and to the political strategies of governments. 

Social differences and inequalities are marked by food choices and food practices. Issues around public health, food security, global hunger, malnutrition and obesity cannot be understood without reference to systems of food production and consumption. Social Science subjects for which food is key include: sociology, anthropology, geography, economics, business, politics and international studies and development studies. Because food crosses a number of conceptual boundaries it is often the focus of multidisciplinary projects and research.

Food studies can be divided into a number of overlapping areas including: food habits; dietary change; nutrition; malnutrition, hunger and food security; agriculture and food production; food governance and policy; political economy of food; food and the environment; food choice; food history; food culture and society.

Academic and public interest in food is matched by its importance to key government departments including Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Health and the Department for International Development. Key watchdogs include the Food Standards Association and the Consumer Association.

Collection overview

The British Library's collection relating to food studies is extensive and has particular strengths in English-language material published in the UK and North America. Most printed material is kept offsite and has to be ordered in advance of your visit or ordered via our Document Supply Service. A selection of around 200 relevant books and reports published in the last three years, and key journals published in the last 12 months, are available on the shelves in the London Social Sciences Reading Room.

Overall we have:

  • a comprehensive collection of UK material, including report literature, working papers and conference papers
  • strong English-language collections from other countries, especially North America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa. East European collections are also strong, reflecting interest in the transition to capitalism. Asian-language material has been collected selectively
  • extensive collections of market research reports, company reports, patents and trade directories in the Business and Intellectual Property Centre (BIPC), where you can also use financial, market and news databases
  • extensive journals coverage, with many journals in full text online in our Social Sciences Reading Room, plus indexing and abstracting databases to help you find articles
  • extensive newspaper collections, print and online
  • vast cookery book and recipe collections
  • a growing collection of electronic resources and useful websites. We also archive relevant websites as part of the UK Web Archiving Consortium
  • oral histories of industries, professions, companies and business leaders in the Sound Archive.

Online access to food holdings

The British Library has two dedicated websites, Food Stories and Books for Cooks that focus on food. Food Stories gives free access to food oral history recordings and is an interactive learning resource which explores some of the changes that have taken place in food consumption and production within the last century. The site is organised around different themes such as 'food and cultural identity', 'food and regulation', 'technology and change' and 'ritual and tradition' and is an excellent resource for teachers and students. Books for Cooks has free access to digitised extracts of 17 texts, from the Middle Ages to the Second World War.

Finding aids

  • Explore the British Library to find details of books, reports, journal titles, newspapers, maps and many more parts of the Library’s collections
  • business information industry guides including guides to fast food, confectionery, frozen food and organic food
  • a list of market research and global trade databases, available from the BIPC Reading Room
  • indexing and abstracting databases available from the Social Science Reading Room
  • a list of oral history food recordings held by the British Library Sound Archive

Social Sciences Enquiry team

For more help on using the Social Sciences collections, contact the Enquiry team at Social-sciences@bl.uk or telephone +44 (0)20 7412 7894 from 10.00 - 20.00 Mon- Thurs or 10.00 - 17.00 Friday.

See also the Science web pages for information relating to the science of nutrition and medical and technological aspects of food and food production.

Current activities

British Library Content Strategy

We have refined our Content Strategy (i.e what we collect now and in future). Please see the content strategy pages on our website. These pages are organised by subject. Please remember that different aspects of a research theme may be described under more than one subject. A subject will also cover a variety of research themes, so even though your topic may not be specifically listed, it will likely be found under one of our headings.

If you have comments on the Library's content strategy, we would be pleased to hear from you.