Study: Where Your Meat Comes From Matters

Research participants heavily favored meat they believed to be humanely raised.


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You know that guy, the one peppering the waiter with a million questions about the meat he’s about to eat? New research from Northeastern and Tufts says you should be that guy.

The study, published Wednesday in PLOS ONE, found that people who’re told they’re eating humanely raised meat prefer it to meat they’re told came from a factory, suggesting that your beliefs really can influence your senses and palate.

For the study, 117 Northeastern undergraduates were given two pieces of beef jerky: one with a label from a humane farm, and one with a factory label. In reality, however, both samples were the exact same organic jerky. The students were then asked to rate the meats’ smells, tastes, appearances, and overall enjoyability; specify how much they would pay for each; and decide whether they would eat each one again. Researchers also measured how much of each sample the subjects ate.

The “humane” meat outperformed “factory” jerky in every single measure, the researchers found. That result was duplicated in similar experiments using ham and roast beef.

Interestingly, the team found that believing meat came from a factory farm reduced enjoyment, but believing meat came from a humane farm did not inherently increase enjoyment, a pattern that’s “consistent with other studies that find negative information is more impactful than positive information.” Here, it’s perhaps because of the visceral negative feelings associated with animal suffering.

The experiments were small and relied on self-reported data, but their findings suggest that people truly care—maybe even subliminally—about the sourcing of their food. “Beliefs influence how people evaluate food. Wine tastes better when people believe it is expensive, compared to when they believe it is inexpensive—even when the two wine samples are actually identical,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “Beliefs about how food is produced also influence the experience of eating.”

So next time you dine out, go ahead and ask whether your steak came from a grass-fed, humanely raised cow. Just make sure you’re ready for the answer.