The meat of the issue

By Megan McArdle

I stand vindicated.  Sort of:

Do you scoff at those pale Tofu dogs in the health food aisles of the supermarket? Are you one of those people who taunt vegans by talking about Big Macs? A new study suggests that you should think about biting your tongue: According to the researchers, how we feel about a sausage, regardless of whether it's soy-based or beef, says more about our personal values than about what the sausage actually tastes like. In fact, most people can't even tell the difference between an ersatz vegan sausage and the real thing. (It should be noted, though, that not all vegan products are equally deceptive: a soy hot dog, in contrast, only fooled 37 percent of subjects. And I'm guessing the soy ice cream fooled nobody.)

The clever experiment went like this: a large group of people were given a "human values" test which seeks to measure fifty six different values (loyalty, ambition, social order, etc.) Then, the subjects were asked to rate a variety of sausages. People who scored high on "social authority" - they believed it was important to support people in power - tended to label the "vegetarian" sausage as inferior, even when the vegetarian sausage was actually from a cow. Likewise, people who scored low on "social power values" tended to score the vegan sausage much higher than the beef sausage, even when they were actually eating meat. Instead of judging the food product on its merits, they ended up preferring the product that more closely conformed to their value system. The scientists also conducted a similar experiment with Pepsi. Sure enough, people who fit the Pepsi demographic - they think having an "exciting life" is very important - always preferred Pepsi, even when they were actually drinking a generic cola.

This research conforms to a growing body of evidence suggesting that our gustatory preferences are an incredibly subjective thing.

The thing is, I hate vegan sausage.  Of course, I wasn't super fond of non-vegan sausage, but vegan sausage is a mealy mess. 

On the other hand, this strikes me as broadly true.  I've cooked vegan food for a number of people who liked it as long as they didn't know it was vegan, but nonetheless look skeptical when another vegan meal is proposed.  Most of those people seem to have a sort of determination not to like anything except meat, as if one bite of tofu might send them skipping out into the woods to dance round the meadows with the twee fairies. 


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2008/07/the-meat-of-the-issue/3889/