Food imagery ideal for teaching doctors... who must have strong stomachs

July 9, 2014

From 'beer belly' to 'port wine stain', food imagery has a long history of being used in medicine to identify the diagnostic features of a wide range of conditions and ailments, says a pathologist in Medical Humanities.

The helpful visual and diagnostic clues it provides are ideal for enhancing doctors' understanding of disease and are part of a tradition that is worth celebrating, despite its admittedly European bias, she says.

In a gastronomic tour of some of the many food descriptors used in medicine, the author highlights imagery such as 'anchovy sauce' to describe the pus from a liver abscess, through 'sago spleen' to indicate protein (amyloid) deposits, to 'oat cell carcinoma,' which describes the appearance of a highly aggressive form of lung cancer.

Dairy products feature prominently in the medical lexicon: 'milk patch' describes the appearance of healed inflamed membranes surrounding the heart (rheumatic pericarditis), while café au lait describes the tell-tale skin pigmentation of von Recklinghausen's disease - a genetic disorder characterised by nerve tumours. And 'egg shell crackling' denotes the grating sound indicative of the bone tumour ameloblastoma.

Fruit is also popular, as in 'apple' or 'pear' shape to describe the appearance of fat distribution around the body, or 'strawberry cervix' which indicates inflammation in the neck of the womb brought about by Trichomonas infection.

Water melon, oranges, currant jelly, grapes, and cherry all find their way into visual clues for a range of conditions, while breakfast food imagery is common.

A 'croissant' appearance in a cell nucleus is indicative of a benign growth on peripheral nerves. Similarly, a 'blueberry muffin' rash is characteristic of congenital rubella, while the appearance of a is referred to as 'doughnut' shaped.

There's even a reference to an entire dish, as a skin condition called tinea versicolor is denoted by its 'spaghetti and meatball' .

The author suggests that food descriptors reflect a basic human need for survival, or perhaps the fact that many medical practitioners are forced to grab their meals on the job.

But doctors must have strong stomachs, she says. "It is a wonder that, in the midst of the smells and sights of human affliction, a physician has the stomach to think of food at all," she suggests.

But she adds: "Whatever the genesis, these time honoured allusions have been, and will continue to be, a lively learning inducement for generations of budding physicians."

Explore further: Study: Beauty not disease motivates teens to wear sunscreen

More information: Twist of taste: gastronomic allusions in medicine, Medical Humanities, Online First, DOI: 10.1136/medhum-2014-010522

Related Stories

Study: Beauty not disease motivates teens to wear sunscreen

February 13, 2014

After offering information about UV light and sun-protective behaviors, the two health-ed videos diverge: one describes the increased skin cancer risk of UV exposure and the other describes effects on appearance including ...

Breastfeeding decisions

July 8, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—Mothers concerned about their changing shape and appearance during pregnancy are less likely to breastfeed after their baby is born, new research has uncovered.

Recommended for you

Elephants provide big clue in fight against cancer

October 9, 2015

Carlo Maley spends his time pondering pachyderms—and cactuses and whales, and a wide array of non-human species—all in pursuit of the answer to this question: Why do some life forms get cancer while others do not?

Compound doubles up on cancer detection

October 8, 2015

Tagging a pair of markers found almost exclusively on a common brain cancer yields a cancer signal that is both more obvious and more specific to cancer, according to a study published last week in the Proceedings of the ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.