Culturally Appropriate Food Media
By Breana Lai Killeen, MPH, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 26 No. 3 P. 26

Best Practices for Talking and Writing About Food

Food media, such as recipes, articles, handouts, and videos, are important tools for educating clients and patients on how to make healthful foods. Dietitians are in a variety of settings where the discussion of food is integral to care, such as during one-on-one client interactions or presentations to large groups. Since there’s a widely diverse population and food preferences vary in the United States, it’s important to learn how to tailor language, media, and recipes to accommodate different palates and cultures.

Crafting culturally appropriate food media is at the crux of ensuring that intended messages from dietitians permeate with the following goals to:

• create trust in the dietitian delivering the message; and

• recommend culturally appropriate strategies that satisfy the client’s health goals.

To accomplish this, Today’s Dietitian (TD) will discuss five key strategies for dietitians to follow to create culturally appropriate food media and presentations. TD will review certain words that should be used cautiously and some that should be avoided when referring to food. Moreover, TD will examine how the choices for ingredients, directions, photography props, and garnishes are opportunities for dietitians to avoid cultural faux pas and perpetuating stereotypes.

Rapidly Changing Population
According to a 2020 survey from the Commission on Dietetic Registration, 80% of practicing dietitians identify as white, 6% as Hispanic or Latino, 3% as Black or African American, and 5% as Asian.1 However, this varies from the demographics of the US population, which in 2020 had a national breakdown of 60% white, 19% Hispanic or Latino, 14% Black or African American, and 6% Asian.2 While these demographics may not seem too different, projections from the US Census Bureau estimate that by 2030, the racial demographics will change even more to 56% white, 21% Hispanic or Latino, 14% Black or African American, and 7% Asian.3 An incongruent diversity in the dietetics field to that of the general population is evident, but dietitians still can provide appropriate care to all individuals.

Learning how to counsel patients of different cultures from their own requires a deeper knowledge of those cultures. This involves research and time. While the above statistics show demographic percentages, the first step to creating culturally appropriate food media is to know what cultures dietitians are speaking to beyond the general demographic categories. This includes but isn’t limited to, regionality, ethnic history, religion, and ingredient sourcing. First, it’s important to define cultural appropriation.

What Is Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural appropriation occurs when there’s an unacknowledged or uncredited use of a recipe and/or food tradition from a people or society, which profits the dominant group and often results in the propagation of stereotypes. In other words, cultural appropriation happens when dietitians write recipes or create products from a marginalized culture (ie, nonwhite) and use inauthentic ingredients, methods, substitutions, and/or equipment and call it authentic, or when dietitians copy an authentic recipe or product and call it their own, and then benefit monetarily or professionally.4

Dietitians, including myself, have been guilty of cultural appropriation when they’ve tried to make more healthful versions of authentic dishes in previous years. Swapping brown rice for white rice, using ground turkey instead of ground pork, and oven-frying instead of deep-frying are just a few of the methods used to reduce calories and saturated fat and increase fiber. However, by altering traditional versions of recipes and subsequently profiting off these recipes, dietitians are inherently saying that the original recipe was bad and/or needed improvement so as to conform to more healthful standards, which most often have been determined by the dominant culture. Making recipes more healthful isn’t the issue; it’s the monetary benefit and perpetuation of stereotypes that inherently suggest that a culture’s food, and by proxy, the people and culture itself, need to be made more healthful and more palatable to the people of the dominant culture.

This profitability creates a sense of mistrust of dietitians among marginalized groups and can be antithetical to the health messaging RDs are trying to deliver.

Strategies for RDs Who Speak or Write About Global Foods
The best way to speak, write, and create food media that contain information on global foods from cultures other than your own involves the following five strategies.

1. Do your homework. When writing recipes or creating content related to a specific culture or ethnicity that isn’t yours, research the traditional version of the food. There often are many ways to make a traditional recipe—not all Italian grandmas make their meatballs the same way—but there are consistencies between recipes traditional to the dish. For example, traditional ingredients for polpettes (Italian meatballs) include ground meat, breadcrumbs, eggs, milk, onion, garlic, and herbs, but there can be differences depending on the Italian region. Some recipes use a blend of pork and veal, others stick to ground beef, and others use all three, but, in this case, any of the three ground meats can be used in traditional polpettes.

However, the variation in meat used in traditional Italian meatballs doesn’t translate to other recipes for meatballs, such as in the recipe for Chinese Shi Zi Tou, also known as Lion’s Head Meatballs. In this recipe, pork is the only ground meat traditionally used, so changing it to ground turkey means you’re altering the traditional recipe. As ground turkey is lower in saturated fat than ground pork, this substitution could make sense when making a version lower in calories and fat. Nevertheless, to be culturally appropriate, the recipe should acknowledge the traditional inspiration and give credit to the original source.

Giving credit occurs most easily in the recipe headnote or the description that accompanies a recipe title. Here, dietitians can say, “Traditional Shi Zi Tou (Lion’s Head Meatballs) are made with fatty ground pork, but to reduce the calories and saturated fat, this recipe uses ground turkey instead.” By describing why the swap was made from pork to turkey instead of simply saying this recipe is “healthier,” dietitians not only give context to why they made the substitution but also educate the reader on how to make lighter swaps in the future if reducing calories and fat is their goal.

2. Learn the pronunciation. Global foods are considered global because they come from all over the world, where English isn’t the primary language. If dietitians are including recipes, ingredients, techniques, and inspiration in which the terms are in another language, learn how to pronounce these words in the language of origin with English in parenthesis, as mentioned earlier regarding the Shi Zi Tou (Lion’s Head Meatballs) recipe. The pronunciation doesn’t need to be perfect, but demonstrating an attempt first, then using the English translation shows respect to the traditional dish and the people who traditionally create and eat that dish.

In many cases, the names of global foods are part of the US lexicon and don’t need additional English in parentheses. Examples of these include empanadas, ceviche, pad thai, pierogi, paella, and pho. However, if a variation is made that’s nontraditional, such as using hearts of palm as a stand-in for white fish to make a ceviche vegan, this swap should be described both in the name of the recipe (Vegan Ceviche) and in the headnote.

3. Don’t rely on stereotypes. Collards, bok choy, and plantains: Do these ingredients evoke associations with certain cultures? While they might be eaten more frequently by certain ethnic groups, using stereotypical ingredients as a proxy for culinary research can be disrespectful.

Dietitians should do their research when creating culturally appropriate food content to find what traditional ingredients, methods, and garnishes are used to cook cultural foods and what terms are used to refer to them.

Natasha Ashley, MS, RD, CDN, owner of Natasha Ashley Nutrition, in Philadelphia, says, “There’s this expectation that all African Americans eat soul food and that it’s a regular staple in our diet. People forget that many items that are considered soul foods are, in fact, just southern foods. Many other races and cultures consume it too.”

As for food photography, dietitians also need to do their homework. It’s common to see chopsticks appear in a photo with Southeast Asian food, but not all Southeast Asian food is eaten with chopsticks. In Thai cuisine, only noodle dishes are eaten with chopsticks, while rice dishes are eaten with a fork and spoon. In addition, there are different types of chopsticks depending on the country. Chinese chopsticks are round and thick at the end, Japanese chopsticks taper to a thin point, and Korean chopsticks are heavier because they’re made of metal. Filipino food is never eaten with chopsticks. Simply adding chopsticks to a photo to signal it’s an Asian dish shows a lack of cultural respect.

4. Don’t default to grouping cultural foods together. Technically, India, China, and Russia are all in Asia, but when the word Asian is used, it’s most often associated with the Southeastern Asian nations of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. While it’s easier and often shorter to use the term Asian, it’s ideal for dietitians to identify the specific Asian nation they’re referring to, such as Vietnamese or Korean. If the recipe isn’t authentic to that region but is inspired by the flavors of that culture, then use the terms “Vietnamese-inspired” or “Korean-inspired.” Or, if many ingredients from a similar area are used, then say “Southeast Asian-inspired” or “Asian-inspired.”

The same goes for South American cuisine. “One of the biggest mistakes I see is that all Latine dishes featured are usually Mexican or South American but labeled as Mexican,” says Dalina Soto, MA, RD, LDN, owner of Your Latina Nutrition, in Philadelphia. “Latine culture is huge and varied, and there are many countries and takes on the same dish. I think it’s important to highlight a variety of countries and not fall for the trap of everything is Mexican.”

Ashley agrees: “A common mistake is that African Americans are a monolith. There are Black people who are of Caribbean decent who have a different culture and may eat different foods than those from the South.”

5. If you don’t know, ask and listen. Like many health care professionals, dietitians are short on time. So, if they didn’t do any research before a presentation or are asked a question pertaining to a global food they don’t know the answer to, they can simply say, “I will have to do more research.” It’s always best to deliver truthful information than not.

“Find someone from the culture and talk to them. Ask them for tricks and tips on how to make it authentic. Most RDs have social media and a following and can crowdsource. Moreover, never say anything is definite or the right way to do it. Even within cultures there are variations and different ways to make a dish,” Soto says.

Ashley agrees: “Even as an African American dietitian, I never expect to know everything about Black food and culture. There’s so much to learn and discover about where people come from and how we eat differently (and the same). I welcome the diversity.”

Words to Avoid and Words to Use Sparingly in Food Media
Many words that were commonly used in food media are now seen as faux pas when describing global foods. These include but are not limited to: kaffir lime, exotic, weird, Oriental, and white trash. It’s best to avoid a white-centering term like exotic because exotic essentially means nonwhite. Dietitians also should refrain from using the word “weird.” A food might be different from what dietitians are used to, but it may not be weird in other cultures. The same holds true for the term “Oriental,” which dietitians also should avoid. Oriental means “of the Orient” or “the East,” but its use in the past was during a time when it had a negative stereotypical connotation about the people of Southeast Asia. The term “kaffir” is a racial slur to describe Black and nonwhite individuals in South Africa. It’s akin to using the N-word. Use “makrut lime” instead. If dietitians are going to be culturally appropriate to communities of color, they also should be culturally appropriate to those not of color, so avoiding the use of the term “white trash” to describe food is best.

Words that should be used cautiously include “ethnic” and “American” because the context in which these words are used is important. Ethnic to whom or what? The definition of ethnic is “of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.”5 But would Christian food be considered ethnic? No. “Ethnic” is only used when describing food from communities of color. It’s not always used with a negative connotation, but it can be.

And lastly is the word “American.” Technically, anyone born in the United States is an American, but when dietitians describe foods as American, the foods typically presented are those of a certain diet, not one that’s diverse.

Issues Regarding Cultural Sensitivity
When researching global foods, how does one find authentic sources? Often, it requires the need to scroll past the first page of a Google search. Finding reputable sources for authentic food media should be treated the same as doing research for a journal article. Look at books written by experts and websites from individuals of the culture who also have done research and reach out to reputable sources. It may take extra effort and time, but it’s an essential step for creating good food content and gaining trust from diverse clients.

If dietitians work in areas with limited resources or are counseling clients in food deserts where there are few culturally inclusive options, they still can advocate for them and ask them about the types of culturally appropriate foods they wish were available. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to counseling doesn’t work, but dietitians can get creative and advise clients on how to do what’s best with the foods available.

How Cultural Inclusivity Translates to Better Patient Care
Dietitians advise patients in a variety of settings, including health departments, hospitals, and outpatient clinics, as well as through online and print media sources. Since food is at the heart of what RDs discuss with clients, patients, and followers, it’s important to craft recipes and food content that’s respectful to the individuals they help. Research shows that cultural competence in health care is a component of successful patient care.6 With that in mind, it’s important to remember that the food we choose to eat is deeply personal to every individual. When dietitians attempt to amend an individual’s diet to incorporate more healthful components, it’s imperative they approach it from a culturally appropriate mindset, no matter how that culture differs from their own.

— Breana Lai Killeen, MPH, RD, is an expert in culturally appropriate food media and a chef, dietitian, and farmer based in Shelburne, Vermont. Along with her food writing, she produces poultry, eggs, beef, and Asian vegetables for her local community at Killeen Crossroads Farm.


1. Demographics. Commission on Dietetic Registration website. Accessed December 20, 2023.

2. Quick facts. United States Census Bureau website. Accessed December 20, 2023.

3. United States Census Bureau. Demographic turning points for the United States: population projections for 2020 to 2060. Published March 2018. Updated 2020.

4. What is cultural appropriation? Brittanica website. Accessed February 20, 2023.

5. Definition of ethnic. Merriam-Webster website. Accessed February 30, 2023.

6. Handtke O, Schilgen B, Mosko M. Culturally competent healthcare – a scoping review of strategies implemented in healthcare organizations and a model of culturally competent healthcare provision. PLoS One. 2019;14(7):e0219971.