Our brains are wired to prefer the taste of humanely raised meat

What you read is what you get.
What you read is what you get.
Image: Reuters/Sergio Moraes
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Add meat to the growing body evidence showing that people’s experience of the world is influenced by their feelings, rather than objective reality.

The authors of a new study wanted to test whether people’s beliefs about how a food animal was raised would impact their thoughts on the taste of its meat. To do this, Tufts University’s Eric Anderson and Northeastern University’s Lisa Feldman presented 146 Northeastern University undergraduate students with two identical meat samples. Each sample came with a label—one described the meat having come from an animal raised on a factory farm, and the other was for one raised on a so-called humane farm.

Despite the meat being identical, the subjects of the study preferred the one labeled as humanely raised—and they were oddly specific about it. They described the “factory farmed” meat as looking, smelling and tasting less pleasant. They even said it was more salty and greasy, and wound up not eating as much of it.

Previous food research arrives at similar results. For instance, evidence suggests people prefer wine they believe is expensive. In another study, people said they enjoyed salmon-flavored ice cream when it was marketed as a savory frozen mousse, but said they disliked the same substance when it was marketed as a traditional ice cream.

Part of this might be because humans want the food they eat to reflect their values, beyond just meeting their physical needs. In that sense, the quality of food is measured by the journey it took to get to the plate.

“People increasingly want a story around that, and they want an authentic story,” said Simon Roberts, an anthropologist with Stripe Partners, a UK-based consultancy. “What we eat says a huge amount about who we are, about how we want to present ourselves, about the sort of values that we ascribe to and about the tribes or groups that we want to be a part of.”

Marketers know this, and it’s one of the main reasons consumers find bucolic scenes printed on egg cartons in the supermarket and “all natural” labeling on granola bars.