Knowing That Meat Is ‘Humane’ Makes It Taste Better
There’s a reason why commercials for meat products opt for bucolic shots of rolling pasture and happy animals. That is, if they show livestock at all. Being confronted with the cramped, filthy reality of contemporary commercial animal agriculture puts a bad taste in consumers’ mouths—and now there’s new research showing how far-reaching the effect of just reading about such conditions has on taste.
“Our goal was to test whether beliefs about how animals were raised (whether they suffered) would influence the experience of eating meat,” according to coauthors Eric Anderson of Tufts University and Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University, whose study was published this week in the journal PLOS One. To find out how morals affect taste, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in which samples of meat products were given to subjects with different descriptions of how the animals were raised—but the meat itself was always the same.
In one test, for example, subjects were given two samples of beef jerky and were asked to read a description of each of the products before eating them. For one, “the animals grazed in outdoor pastures and consumed organic feeds. They were not raised with antibiotic or artificial growth hormones. Care was taken to ensure the welfare of the animals.” The other sample was made with meat from animals that “were confined in pens where they were unable to lay down. They were given antibiotics and hormones to speed growth. No steps were taken to ensure the welfare of the animals.”
While the results were not dramatic, they were notable: Across all three studies, the researchers “found that beliefs about how animals were raised influenced the experience of consuming meat.” Meat that subjects believed was from a factory farm “looked, smelled, and tasted less pleasant”; subjects reported being less willing to pay a premium for those samples and less likely to eat them again. Factory-farmed meat was said to taste greasier and less fresh compared with the humanely raised samples—samples that were identical.
But if being confronted with the more grim realities of where meat comes from made some samples less desirable, believing that a piece of beef jerky was from a cow raised on an idyllic pasture did not make it wildly more attractive to the test subjects. As the researchers explained, “believing meat came from a humane farm did not boost the overall hedonic experience compared to meat paired with a control description or no description,” under the three study scenarios. This is consistent, they noted, with other studies “that find negative information is more impactful than positive information.”
So it’s not exactly that “our brains are wired to prefer the taste of humanely raised meat,” as Quartz put it in a headline. Rather, the study suggests that we have an aversion to eating meat from animals that have suffered. Our meat consumption habits—and the structure of the animal-agriculture industry itself—are, however, decidedly at odds with that reality. In the U.S., the majority of all types of livestock are produced on what could be termed factory farms.
While the descriptions influenced the perception of taste of two identical samples, there are real differences in the flavor of humanely raised livestock—which gets more exercise and different feed, both of which affect flavor. If you’ve grown up eating corn-fed beef or bland Butterball turkeys, the more intense, assertive flavor of grass-fed beef or a heritage Thanksgiving bird can be a turnoff—one that any slight psychological shifts in flavor caused by eating a more humane product might not be able to overcome.