Northeastern University researchers found that subjects judged meat supposedly from animals raised on factory farms as looking and smelling less pleasant when compared to meat raised on humane farms.
More importantly, factory farm meat was judged less tasty and consequently less of this food was consumed in the experiment.
The findings are in keeping with research that demonstrates beliefs can influence how consumers evaluate food.
Eggs, for example, might be purchased in a supermarket if a consumer thinks the hens are raised in an ethical manner.
Egg carton packaging that uses language like 'Farm Fresh' and 'Country,' can play a part of directing consumer perceptions of the eggs even if the reality is the produce is the result of factory farming.
Led by Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University, the study began with samples of meat (2 g of organic beef jerky) paired with descriptions of animals raised on factory farms or raised on humane farms.
In total, 117 individuals took part in the study including 72 women (61.5%) and ranged in age from 17–23 years old.
During the study, each individual ate two identical samples, but each sample was paired with a different description to manipulate the subjects’ beliefs.
The team found the individuals all experienced the samples differently. Meat described as factory farmed was judged as looking, smelling, and tasting less pleasant. Subjects reported a more salty and/or greasy taste. As a result, 8% less meat was consumed.
When questioned, subjects said they would pay 22% less for a six-ounce (170g) package of the factory farmed beef jerky compared to the humanely farmed jerky.
The researchers were testing for what is known as ‘grounded cognition,’ which describes beliefs as examples of knowledge that include affective and sensory neural images.
"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," the study noted.
"We were largely hypothesising that labelling something as raised on a humane farm would improve taste and appearance and other characteristics of the meat sample," added Barrett.
"But what we found instead is that explicitly labelling something as factory farmed harms the perceptual qualities of the food."
The findings could be of notable interest to food manufacturers where product perception and issues of ethical production are important consumers.
Beliefs about food are shaped by culture, education, and advertising. Studies that look into this phenomenon include one that demonstrated savoury broth as more pleasant tasting when labelled as a ‘rich and delicious taste’ compared to when labelled as including ‘monosodium glutamate.’
In addition, coffee labelled ‘eco-friendly’ was reported as being better tasting to subjects than identical unlabelled coffee.
“We found that affective beliefs about animal welfare influence the experience of eating meat, but this effect likely extends to any strong affective belief,” the study concluded.
“Additionally, these effects almost certainly extend beyond meat to other food, and even other experiences.”
Barrett added that plans to conduct a similar study in the future using non-mammals, including chickens, ducks, and tuna.
Source: PLOS One
Published online ahead of print, doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0160424
“Affective Beliefs Influence the Experience of Eating Meat.”
Authors: Lisa Feldman Barrett et al