Food or medicine? The food–medicine interface in households in Sylhet

Hannah Maria Jennings, Joy Merrell, Janice L Thompson, Michael Heinrich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)
259 Downloads (Pure)


Ethnopharmacological relevance
Bangladesh has a rich traditional plant-medicine use, drawing on Ayurveda and Unami medicine. How these practices translate into people׳s homes and lives vary. Furthermore, the overlap between food and medicine is blurred and context-specific. This paper explores the food–medicine interface as experienced by Bengali women in their homes, in the context of transnational and generational changes.
Aim and objectives
The aim is to explore the overlap of food and medicines in homes of Bengali women in Sylhet. The objectives are to explore the influences on medicinal plant practice and to scrutinise how catagories of food and medicine are decided.
Material and methods
The paper draws on in-depth ethnographic research conducted in Sylhet, North-east Bangladesh as part of a wider project looking at food and medicine use among Bengali women in both the UK and Bangladesh. Methods included participant observation, unstructured interviews and semi-structured interviews with a total of thirty women.
The study indicates that the use of plants as food and medicine is common among Bengali women in Sylhet. What is consumed as a food and/or a medicine varies between individuals, generations and families. The use and perceptions of food–medicines is also dependent on multiple factors such as age, education and availability of both plants and biomedicine. Where a plant may fall on the food–medicine spectrum depends on a range of factors including its purpose, consistency and taste.
Previous academic research has concentrated on the nutritional and pharmacological properties of culturally constructed food–medicines (Etkin and Ross, 1982, Owen and Johns, 2002 and Pieroni and Quave, 2006). However, our findings indicate a contextualisation of the food-plant spectrum based on both local beliefs and wider structural factors, and thus not necessarily characteristics intrinsic to the products׳ pharmacological or nutritional properties. The implications of this research are of both academic relevance and practical importance to informing health services.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)97-104
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Ethnopharmacology
Early online date18 Sept 2014
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jun 2015


  • Food–medicine
  • Bangladesh
  • Ethnography
  • Health beliefs
  • Health practices


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