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When I was looking for the German equivalent of "food" in my dictionary, I've noticed that both "Lebensmittel" and "Nahrung" have same meaning and I've learned "Essen" before.

While I was trying to find the difference via Google, not only it didn't solve the problem but also I found some other words like "Nahrungsmittel" and "Genussmittel" and "Speise" and "Futter" with the same meaning. Here, I just found that "Futter" is animal's food.

I'm confused, if there is any differences between these words and their usage! Why there are too many words for "Food"?!

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Don't forget Ernährung! – Tim Jun 17 '11 at 10:44
@Tim: But Ernährung is not something you can eat. That makes it rather different from the other words. – Hendrik Vogt Jun 17 '11 at 10:46
@Hendrik Don't forget the food pyramid. – Phira Jun 17 '11 at 10:49
Food, groceries, edibles, catering, foodstuffs, nutriment, aliment, provisions, supplies, victuals/vittles, viands, meal, feed, chow, fodder, grub... – RegDwight Jun 17 '11 at 10:49
@RegDwight: So, I'll ask the same question on EL&U ! – user508 Jun 17 '11 at 10:55
up vote 17 down vote accepted

Lebensmittel is the technical term. You would say "Ein Supermarkt verkauft Lebensmittel"; an official food inspector is called Lebensmittelkontrolleur.

Nahrung usually stands for nourishment or nutrition, not only referring to food, but also, for example, "Öl ist Nahrung für das Feuer" — "oil feeds the fire".

Essen is either the act of eating or the colloquial word for food. "Ich gehe etwas zum Essen einkaufen" ("I'm going to buy something to eat") or "Ich gehe Essen einkaufen".

An example of the difference between Lebensmittel and Essen: "Er warf die Lebensmittel weg" would refer to throwing away, for example, a full grocery bag or food from the cupboard, whereas "Er warf das Essen weg" would probably rather be getting rid of a prepared meal, or scraping off a plate.

Speise is a more antiquated word. It is normally used to refer to something special or formal. Nowadays it is usually found in compounds such as Speisekarte (a menu, as in the list of food available in a restaurant) or Speisesaal (a dining hall in a castle or a hotel).

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Essen: if you are talking about the food of a particular meal in an ordinary setting.

Das Essen ist fertig. (Dinner/lunch is ready.)

Lebensmittel: refers to food as goods you can buy and sell, as in food production or food prices.

Die Lebensmittelpreise sind überdurchschnittlich stark angestiegen.

Speise: refers to a particular dish, as in my favourite dish. Can be used instead of Essen in a more formal or older context (e.g. Bible translation or poems).

  • Meine Lieblingsspeise.
  • Jesus hat Fisch und Brot bei der Speisung der Fünftausend vermehrt.

Nahrung and Nahrungsmittel: refers to food as satisfying your needs, compare nahrhaft, "nutritious".

Ernährung is food in the sense of nutrition or diet.

Gesunde Ernährung ist die Grundlage eines guten Teints.

Futter is used for animal food and can be used for food in informal or regional contexts.

Fressen is also used for animal's food.

Genußmittel refers to drug-like items that do not primarily satisfy hunger. Think chocolate, coffee, tobacco, etc.

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Nice summary. Can Essen also refer to animal food? – Tim Jun 17 '11 at 11:01
@Tim: No, you wouldn't say that. You would use the verb fressen and Futter: Der Hund hat das ganze Futter gefressen. The noun das Fressen can also be used for animal's food. – Deve Jun 17 '11 at 11:15
"Essen" has a slightly broader meaning, see RoToRa's answer for an example. – ladybug Jun 17 '11 at 13:59
@Deve: You wouldn’t say ‘Fressen ist fertig’ to a dog, though. Weird as it is, some people would rather say ‘Fressi ist fertig’. – Debilski Jun 22 '11 at 20:30

"Lebensmittel" literally translates into "means of life." A better translation may be "foodstuffs." It could be in very raw form, such as unhusked corn, but are things that can be made into a meal.

"Nahrung" refers to things of nutritional value. It can refer not only to food, but to items such as vitamins, or even "cod livers oil" (bad-tasting but rich in protein).

Essen is prepared food, or what you eat, basically the dinner on your table.

Speise refers not only to "food" but to (fine) "dining," and refers to a dinner that is well prepared and is better than mere "Essen. A restaurant meal or restaurant quality meal prepared at home would "qualify."

Futter translates into "fodder" and is food for animals.

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