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Chew on this: How we believe our meat is raised can influence how it tastes

by Jason Kornwitz

Our beliefs about how farm ani­mals are raised can shape our meat-eating expe­ri­ence, according to a new study led by Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology at North­eastern University.

For the study, Bar­rett and co-author Eric Anderson, PhD’15, paired iden­tical meat sam­ples with dif­ferent descrip­tions and then reported on par­tic­i­pants’ eating expe­ri­ences. They found that meat sam­ples paired with descrip­tions of ani­mals raised on fac­tory farms looked, smelled, and tasted less pleasant to study par­tic­i­pants than meat sam­ples paired with descrip­tions of ani­mals raised on humane farms. Par­tic­i­pants’ beliefs also influ­enced their per­ceived flavor of the meat and the amount of meat they con­sumed, sug­gesting that beliefs can actu­ally influ­ence eating behavior.

The find­ings, pub­lished Wednesday in the sci­en­tific journal PLoS ONE, align with an emerging body of research that shows that our beliefs can influ­ence how we eval­uate food. Wine, for instance, tastes better if we think it’s expen­sive—even if the fine vin­tage we’ve been told we’re drinking is really a cheap knock-off from a corner store.

“We show that what you feel very directly influ­ences not only how you inter­pret what you see but also very lit­er­ally what you see,” said Bar­rett, a pio­neer in the psy­chology of emo­tion and the director of Northeastern’s Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Affec­tive Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory. “We call this ‘affec­tive realism’—the ten­dency of your feel­ings to influ­ence the actual con­tent of your per­cep­tual expe­ri­ence.” The find­ings, she said, sug­gest that anyone inter­ested in cre­ating things, from a chef to a film­maker to a designer, “should con­sider how beliefs influ­ence the user experience.”

Bar­rett and Anderson hypoth­e­sized that believing meat came from ani­mals that suf­fered would reduce the pleas­ant­ness of the eating expe­ri­ence as well as product con­sump­tion. The theory is based on a con­cept called grounded cog­ni­tion, which defines beliefs as instances of con­cep­tual knowl­edge that include affec­tive and sen­sory neural rep­re­sen­ta­tions. As the researchers noted in the paper, “beliefs that meat came from ani­mals that suf­fered would be rep­re­sented, in part, in regions of the brain that are asso­ci­ated with embodied sim­u­la­tion of ani­mals’ experience.”

To test their hypoth­esis, the researchers designed three dif­ferent exper­i­ments. For the first exper­i­ment, study par­tic­i­pants were asked to con­sume two iden­tical sam­ples of organic beef jerky, each of which was paired with a dif­ferent label describing a dif­ferent kind of farm on which cows were raised. The “humane farm” label described a farm where ani­mals lived freely, grazing out­doors. The “fac­tory farm” label described a farm where ani­mals were more like pris­oners, con­fined to indoor pens.

A graph of the experiments, with the first showing that study participants enjoyed beef jerky less when paired with the fac­tory farm descrip­tion com­pared to the humane farm description—even though the sam­ples were iden­tical.

The first exper­i­ment showed that study par­tic­i­pants enjoyed beef jerky less when paired with the fac­tory farm descrip­tion com­pared to the humane farm description—even though the sam­ples were iden­tical. Illus­tra­tion by YoungHee Jang.

The researchers found that study par­tic­i­pants ranked the fac­tory farmed meat sample as less pleasant along all mea­sured con­sump­tion cat­e­gories, including appear­ance, smell, taste, and overall enjoy­ment. Par­tic­i­pants were willing to pay 22 per­cent less for a six-​​ounce package of the fac­tory farmed jerky com­pared to the humanely farmed jerky and con­sumed 8 per­cent less as well, showing, the researchers wrote, “that implicit con­sump­tion behavior was also influ­enced by beliefs.”

The second exper­i­ment was sim­ilar to the first, with a few key dif­fer­ences. This time, each study par­tic­i­pant sam­pled only one of four iden­tical roast beef sam­ples, each of which was paired with a newly cre­ated descrip­tion. To test whether the fac­tory farm label reduced enjoy­ment or the humane farm label increased enjoy­ment, they added a con­trol descrip­tion that did not men­tion how the ani­mals were raised. They also revised the orig­inal fac­tory farm and humane farm descrip­tions to focus on their dif­fer­ences with respect to animal wel­fare and added a so-called fac­tory farm+ descrip­tion that high­lighted the advan­tages of fac­tory farming to test whether it would offset the effects of animal suffering.The researchers found that study par­tic­i­pants ranked the fac­tory farmed meat sample as less pleasant along all mea­sured con­sump­tion cat­e­gories, including appear­ance, smell, taste, and overall enjoy­ment. Par­tic­i­pants were willing to pay 22 per­cent less for a six-ounce package of the fac­tory farmed jerky com­pared to the humanely farmed jerky and con­sumed 8 per­cent less as well, showing, the researchers wrote, “that implicit con­sump­tion behavior was also influ­enced by beliefs.”

The results showed that posi­tioning fac­tory farms in a pos­i­tive light did not increase par­tic­i­pants’ enjoy­ment of the sample, as meat paired with the fac­tory farm+ descrip­tion was not more well liked than the meat paired with the gen­eral fac­tory farm descrip­tion. This experiment’s other big finding—beef paired with the humane farm descrip­tion and the con­trol descrip­tion were equally liked—suggested that the humane farm descrip­tion did not increase liking, but rather that the fac­tory farm descrip­tion reduced liking.

“We were largely hypoth­e­sizing that labeling some­thing as raised on a humane farm would improve taste and appear­ance and other char­ac­ter­is­tics of the meat sample,” Bar­rett said. “But what we found instead is that explic­itly labeling some­thing as fac­tory farmed harms the per­cep­tual qual­i­ties of the food.”

The third exper­i­ment tested whether beliefs about how ani­mals are raised can influ­ence basic sen­sory prop­er­ties of flavor, including per­ceived salti­ness and sweet­ness. For this exper­i­ment, study par­tic­i­pants were asked to con­sume three iden­tical slices of thickly cut deli ham. First, they tasted ham that was paired with no description—the con­trol con­di­tion. Then, in random order, they sam­pled ham paired with the fac­tory farm and humane farm descrip­tions, both of which were revised to include evoca­tive text and pic­tures of the animals.

The researchers found that the descrip­tions influ­enced the flavor rat­ings of the ham sample. In par­tic­ular, par­tic­i­pants reported that fac­tory farmed ham tasted saltier, greasier, and less fresh than humanely raised ham, rein­forcing the study’s under­lying premise that expe­ri­ence is shaped by beliefs. “Beliefs are really pow­erful. Words are really pow­erful,” Bar­rett said. “They influ­ence what you do, often in sur­prising ways.”

Up next: Bar­rett hopes to con­duct a sim­ilar study about non-mammals, including chickens, ducks, and tuna.

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